By Martha Newman
Harlem in New York City has been jumping with jazz for over 100 years, and it’s still going strong if you know where to find it. Clubs, restaurants, and jazz joints are listed in guidebooks, but I decided to get the real deal on uptown jazz with a tour guide who’s got all the information — and then some! She’s my friend, and she invited me to tag along on one of her Friday night ’Round Midnight Tour jaunts through Harlem.
She’s Amanda Humes, and she’s sassy, bold, and a 20-year resident of Harlem. A licensed NYC tour guide, she’s been bringing people from around the world and across the U.S. — and New Yorkers — to the places she loves to hear music that is American-born.
Her one caveat: be open to anything! Clubs might be fancy and classy or tiny and funky. That night in September, we hit both kinds. If jazz happens to be playing on the street, that’s where the tour will stop. Don’t expect “cookie cutter” from Amanda; do expect a night probably out of your comfort zone.
The night began… Hooking up with the tour group at 6:30 at Columbus Circle (West 59th Street), a central location in the city, we did what the classic Billy Strayhorn/Duke Ellington song told us: we took the A train to Harlem and got off at 125th Street, home to the famous — and still vibrant — Apollo Theater, where Amanda, with flair and panache, delivered a 15-minute history lesson of the street, the theater, and its famous performers.
Just a plain house… We then trouped over to 17 East 126th Street where the photo that came to be called “Great Day in Harlem” was shot back in the summer of 1958 and published in Esquire Magazine in January 1959. When word spread through Harlem in August of ’58 that a picture of the greatest jazz musicians was going to be taken, 57 people showed up. At 10 a.m.! Amanda gave each of us a copy of the photo and hilariously regaled us with its history. Looking carefully, we could identify Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Count Basie, among others.
Time for food and jazz… There were 11 of us on the tour, and we piled into the tremendously popular Red Rooster Restaurant (340 Lenox Avenue between 125th and 126th Streets, 212-792-9001) to devour some of the best soul food in New York. Amanda and I shared the Fried Bird Royale for two ($76): whole fried chicken, mac & greens, mace gravy, liver butter, waffles, and Jou Jou biscuits — and you should, too. Forget cholesterol for a moment and enjoy yourself.
Stuffed to the gills, we pretty much rolled our way downstairs to hear Michael Mwenso and the Shakes at the restaurant’s supper club, Ginny’s (212-421-3821). With piano, guitar, bass, two drum sets, two saxophones, one tap dancer, and two lead singers, we were enthralled by their hot jazz and nonstop motion. Afterwards, we took pictures with the band.
Ambling down the street, we stopped in front of an abandoned, dark building. It was the Lenox Lounge (288 Lenox Avenue), one of Harlem’s most iconic jazz clubs. Opened in 1939, it had been a venue for singers like Billie Holiday and musicians Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It closed in 2012 due to an unaffordable rent increase, and today it’s an eyesore: deserted, with a For Rent sign its most prominent feature. While Amanda gave us the lowdown, two locals stopped to listen. When she finished, one said, “I didn’t know that. Man, who is that person?”
Super sleek, with an equally rich jazz history (founded in 1938, it lays claim to being the home of Bebop), Minton’s Playhouse (206 West 118th Street, 212-243-2222) was our next stop. We got a great, warm welcome from Rosa, the hostess, and were given front of the house seats to hear the fantastic Mark Whitford, Jr. Trio. It was 30 minutes of electrifying jazz, and we loved it. We also loved that there was no cover charge.
As Friday night tipped over into Saturday morning, we found ourselves crammed into a very small, intimate jazz joint to hear extraordinarily talented local musicians play their hearts out. Amanda took the stage and sang a number with the band, blowing away everybody. We ended the night in Harlem on a high note.
Why ’Round Midnight? Anyone can go to Harlem alone, and many people do, but they don’t get the Amanda Experience: her enormous personality and vast knowledge of jazz and Harlem history.
Go online to Big Apple Jazz Tours and click on ’Round Midnight to book this tour (about $100). Amanda says, “Much like jazz, the tours are improvisational and immersive so check the website for dates and times.”
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