In a private home way uptown, the Harlem Renaissance comes alive every Sunday.
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Back in the days of the Harlem Renaissance, a cottage industry of private jazz salons took hold in the living rooms of far uptown Manhattan. These days, one local woman, Marjorie Eliot, keeps the tradition alive in her apartment just off 160th Street, where every Sunday she runs one of New York’s last parlor jazz salons.
Originally started as a tribute to her son Phillip, who passed away in 1992, Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Jazz has become an unmissable Sunday tradition for anyone lucky enough to have heard of it (a diverse crew that comprises old-school jazz heads, local bold-face names such as Marcus Samuelsson, a few well-informed tourists, and, on a recent Sunday, a Robb Report NYC correspondent).
It’s fitting that Eliot’s jazz series takes place where it does. The historic apartment building was once home to major faces of the Harlem Renaissance, including Joe Louis, Count Basie, Thurgood Marshall, Lena Horne, Coleman Hawkins, Erskine Hawkins, Canada Lee, Teddy Wilson, and more. The lobby, complete with a stained-glass ceiling, sets a refined tone that doesn’t stop until you leave, utterly charmed, several hours later.
If you walk in after the music has begun, two things will happen. One, because the rest of the audience will be paying rapt attention to the musicians, you will feel as if you are intruding. Not to worry: The second thing that will happen is that, almost immediately, Marjorie herself will appear at your elbow and help you find a seat. Under any other circumstances, her apartment would feel spacious, but as a makeshift concert hall, it is packed with people on folding chairs and wooden stools, filling the living room, the kitchen, and the foyer, with more people standing behind them.
For two hours the music continues, with a rotating cast of young and old musicians taking their positions against the back wall of the living room. Some are regulars, and some are new. "It is so rewarding for me to be able to bring a diverse audience—which ranges from people who come every Sunday from Westchester, to people who come once a year from Sweden—and the musicians together, face-to-face," says Eliot.
On our visit there was a pianist, a vocalist, a man playing the bass, and another playing the trumpet; one man alternated between the flute, the clarinet, and the saxophone. They played everything from church hymns and songs of peace to a tear-jerking rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” They stopped only for a brief intermission, during which platters of cookies and apple juice were passed from one audience member to the next, turning the secret Sunday jazz concert into Sunday at Grandma’s house.
The highlight of the afternoon was when Eliot took the stage to play piano, and sunlight seemed suddenly to come pouring into the room. Almost everyone was transfixed. Our advice: Close your eyes and just listen. And go back again soon.
Also, keep an eye out for Marjorie Eliot's annual outdoor concert, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year with two days of outdoor jazz from August 18 to 19 in the courtyard of the historic Morris-Jumel Mansion, Manhattan's oldest building, located right next door (65 Jumel Terrace, 212.923.8008).
Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Jazz: Every Sunday from 4 to 6 p.m., 555 Edgecombe Avenue, Studio 3F, 212.781.6595. Admission is free. No reservations necessary; seats are first-come, first-serve.