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Developers and Property Owners Bring The Jazz Age Back To Gentrified Harlem

In the midst of rampant gentrification, Harlem developers are betting on soul food and all that jazz once again.

By Jeff Vasishta November 22, 2016

Who would have thought that gentrification would usher back the golden age in Harlem jazz? Tourists want to see America’s oldest musical art form performed its native environment, even if that environment is no longer filled with struggling jazz cats—but upwardly mobile white residents with high paying jobs. For gentrification to spark, artists need to play their part, taking neighborhoods from dive to thrive. For heritage-rich Harlem, artists also need to play their part during and after gentrification. They just may not be able to live there anymore.

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Clearly, for jazz to survive in Harlem, there need to be deep pockets behind the venture. Case in point—famous Harlem jazz club Minton’s Playhouse. Known as the cradle of bebop, where the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker once thrilled crowds in the forties, the building on West 118th St, which closed in the 1970’s became an apartment complex for formerly homeless adults. It reopened in 2006 only to close again in 2010. In 2013, Richard D. Parsons, a jazz buff and Bedstuy native who went on to run Citicorp and Time Warner, dug into his considerably deep pockets to bring the legendary music venue back to life.

The difference was capital, Mr. Parsons said to the New York Times in 2013. “That’s the bottom line,” he added. “People have not put capital in upgrading these venues, and making them competitive with other venues in town. There’s no question that people can’t wait for Minton’s to open. But no one is going to sit in a place that essentially is in its down-on-the-heels, 1950s version of itself.” Minton’s Playhouse is still open today.

Bill’s Place at 148 West 133rd in Harlem is a tiny venue, squeezed into the basement floor of a brownstone. It revisits the Prohibition-era speakeasy on Friday and Saturday nights, where jazz lovers could drink alcohol and dance their troubles away. The difference today is that the largely international crowd are more likely to have heard of the venue via Yelp or TripAdvisor than a neighborhood  grapevine. Jazz saxophonist, Bill Saxton, 70, a Harlem native, purchased the building in 2004 for $400,000 according to city records, when it was dilapidated and renovated it, turning it into a relatively cheap ($20/head) old school jazz club that wallows in the tradition of a bygone era.

Celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster on 310 Lenox Avenue (between 125th and 126th St’s,) which also hosts the Speakeasy style jazz club, Ginny’s Supper Club in the basement, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It now exists free from landlords because L+M Development Partners and a co-owner of the Red Rooster Harlem shelled out $21 million for the restaurant’s home—a three story office building previously owned by the National Basketball Players Association. L+M and another company, Chapman Consulting, purchased the building for $21 million, according to property records filed with the city in April. The soul food restaurant is co-owned by Chef Marcus Samuelsson and Andrew Chapman. Chapman is a partner at his family’s real estate investment firm, which appears to be the co-buyer. Clearly, owning the building which hosts the business you are a partner in ensures its survival.

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But not all historic jazz clubs have managed to find wealthy benefactors. The Lenox Lounge is one sad example. The two-story building at 286 Lenox Avenue, which used to be a home for one of Harlem’s best loved jazz clubs, will soon be demolished, giving way to a four-story commercial development.

Developer Harlem + Bespoke are the company behind the new space. Staten Island-based Gambino + LaPorta Architecture created the design. The rendering makes makes 125th St and Lenox Ave look like Times Square. The plan includes retail space on the ground floor and office space on the second, third and fourth floors. It also shows Sephora, the French cosmetic chain, with a global footprint, as the retail tenant, with their a lavish company logo emblazoned in what appears to be granite on the sidewalk outside. However, no lease with the cosmetic giant has been confirmed, although Whole Foods, the supermarket chain have confirmed that they will be opening across the street in early 2017.

Hey, maybe they’ll have a jazz band playing tunes for the shoppers. Now there’s an idea.

Jeff Vasishta

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jeff Vasishta

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jeff Vasishta

Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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