Still Swingin’: From The Harlem Renaissance to Today


Published February 18, 2010

Jazz was the rock and roll of the 1920s and ’30s. It was rebellious, unusual, dangerous, and people loved it. It spread like wildfire across the major cities of America, with artists like Big Joe Turner in Kansas City and Nat King Cole in Chicago. But nowhere was its impact felt more than in New York City.

During the explosive cultural movement of the Harlem Renaissance, jazz clubs began popping up all over the city. While many of them were hot spots of the early 20th century, most have faded away over time.  Only a few of these influential Harlem venues remain.  Since it is Black History Month, it’s a perfect time to not only take a look back but to also look at the long-standing clubs where you can find some great music.


Apollo Theater
253 West 125th Street

No summary of Harlem Renaissance venues would be complete without a mention of the Apollo Theater. Founded in 1914, it was originally known as Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theatre.  By the mid-1930s, it gained much success when Ralph Cooper Sr. did a live version of his popular radio show, Amateur Night Hour. One of the first winners was a young Ella Fitzgerald, essentially launching her career.  She wouldn’t be the only star to find fame at the Apollo. Throughout its long history, the theater has hosted many other young musicians starting their careers, including James Brown, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder.  Though the Apollo went through a decline and was even converted into a movie theater in 1975, it was renovated 30 years later and still has Amateur Night every Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. If you’re a student, it’s definitely worth checking out with a discount fee of only $10.


The Cotton Club
656 West 125th Street

The Cotton Club has had a long history to get where it is today.  First known as Club DeLux, founder Jack Johnson (a heavyweight boxer) was forced to sell the club in 1923 to gangster Owney Madden. Seeking a place to sell his brand of beer, Madden reopened the venue as the Cotton Club. In its heyday, some of the biggest African-American entertainers performed on its stage, such as Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington, who gained national exposure from radio broadcasts originating in the venue. Unfortunately, the Cotton Club’s string of good fortune started to run out after it was forced to move in 1936 due to a race riot in Harlem the year before.  It wasn’t until 1978 that the club returned to Harlem where it remains today. With weekly features, such as a Swing Dance Night every Monday for $20, a buffet dinner and jazz show on Thursday, Friday, & Saturday for $45 and a gospel show on Sunday afternoon; the Cotton Club is definitely worth checking out.


Lenox Lounge

288 Malcolm X Boulevard


Though Lenox Lounge was built towards the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, its influence still resonated throughout New York.  Founded in 1939, the club served as a venue for many jazz legends, such as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.  The Lounge not only included music heavyweights, but literary ones as well.  A section of the club known as the Zebra Room was frequented by writers James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. Later on, Malcolm X was another famous patron of the lounge. While it deteriorated through the middle of the century, it was restored to its former glory in 1999. Nowadays, the lounge remains true to its origins with three jazz shows in the Zebra Room every weekend night. Combine that with fine dining and it’s a fun way to spend an evening. Be warned though: it’ll cost you $20 for the show plus a $16 drink minimum per set.


Minton’s Playhouse
206 W 118th St


From the time it opened, it was clear that Minton’s Playhouse would

have an important role in Harlem for years to come.  The venue’s original owner, Henry Minton, was already well-known in the neighborhood for being the first African-American delegate to the American Federation of Musicians Local 802. He had also been the manager of the Rhythm Club, where Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and Earl Hines performed.  Minton’s own popularity and his generosity with food and loans translated into lasting success for his jazz venue. He started a policy of regular jam sessions, which proved to be an important factor in the creation of bebop. He also created the popular Monday Celebrity Nights in which notable guest musicians, such as Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster and Lester Young, would sit in with the house band. While the venue’s golden era of the ’30s and ’40s has passed, it still holds many contemporary jazz performances with a five to $10 cover charge and two-drink minimum.