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Where Lady Day Sleeps, a Jazz Tradition Awakes


Published: March 13, 2005

In an empty room in Harlem, there is a 57-year-old mural of four men playing jazz and a woman face-down on a bed.

The man on guitar is Charlie Christian, it is said, the virtuoso who learned to pick and strum almost before he learned to walk. The man on clarinet is Tony Scott, who helped bring be-bop to the woodwinds. No one is quite sure who is playing the whisk drums, but the trumpeter is almost certainly Hot Lips Page, the masterly Texas sideman. As for the woman, the story goes that it is Billie Holiday, sleeping off a drunk.

Aside from the bare floors and naked walls, this mural, painted in 1948, is all that remains of Minton's Playhouse, the legendary Harlem jazz club. From 1939 to 1974, the Playhouse (so called because people truly played there) held a nightly seminar in smoky innovation with a list of acts that included Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and then the house pianist, Thelonious Monk.

Now, more than 30 years after the club was shuttered and the tables abandoned with cloths and half-burned candles in place, Minton's is expected to reopen. The landlord is somewhat unusual, Housing and Services Inc.: a developer not of nightclubs, but of low-income housing, which happens to own both Minton's and the Cecil, a single-room occupancy hotel next door.

Claire Haaga, president of the corporation, acknowledges that her primary task is to bring low-income and affordable housing to neighborhoods like Harlem. Harlem being Harlem, though, she would also like to bring back the jazz.

"Minton's is a Harlem treasure," said Ms. Haaga, a Memphis native and a jazz fan so avid she tosses around names like Kenny Clarke and Rudy Williams as though they were presidents on Mount Rushmore. "It's where be-bop was born and took off. The polished acts all went downtown, but the experiments took place here."

She was standing in the dim emptiness of Minton's before its final renovation, surveying nothing but the vacant space. There were walls stripped to the studs. There were antique baseboards that have attracted jazz fanatics, who chip off pieces of the wood as if it were from the cross, Ms. Haaga said.

Housing and Services has tried a few times in the past to reopen Minton's, but each time it failed. At one point, Drew Nieporent, the restaurateur, was looking at the space, Ms. Haaga said, but eventually backed out. Quincy Jones, too, was briefly interested, but the interest flagged. Another man, she said, wanted to remake the club into a fancy restaurant along the lines of Lutèce.

The current plan is to open in the next six months under the management of Earl Spain, a Harlem jazz club impresario who worked for more than a decade 30 blocks up St. Nicholas Avenue at St. Nick's Pub. The opening will be formally announced on Wednesday at a fund-raising event at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.

Ms. Haaga said that if she could find the money and the right people, she would open a jazz conservatory in the basement. For years, youngsters from Harlem have been stopping by the Cecil to ask the staff if someone was around to teach them how to play.

That would fit in with a Minton's tradition: the Monday night free-for-all. For years, at the start of every workweek, jazz musicians from around the city would converge on Minton's in what Ralph Ellison called "a continuing symposium of jazz."

Pearl Poole, who has managed the Cecil for the past 17 years, said she was thrilled to have the club next door.

Besides, she said, "There's people here who remember Minton's when Minton's was Minton's."

One of these is Johnny Griggs, and there is a nice story about him. Eight years ago, Ms. Haaga's corporation held a fund-raiser for one of its efforts to reopen the club. The drummer never appeared, so Mr. Griggs stepped in. No one realized at the time that he had once played drums for the likes of James Brown and Duke Ellington - that is, until he picked up the sticks.

"He blew the house away," Ms. Haaga said.

In the empty club, Mr. Griggs, 65, remembered walking into Minton's for the first time in 1964. At the bar, he used to order orange juice when he had the cash.

It was the music that attracted him: "From Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis to Max Roach," he said.

One could do worse than to end on Mr. Griggs's final thought.

"It should be a great happening, Minton's coming back. You got to keep the music alive."

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