On Tuesday, April 30th, jazz musicians, advocates, purveyors, and enthusiasts gathered at the historic Showman’s Jazz Bar on 125th Street to celebrate the commencement of the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival. The Festival, now in its third season, is a superbly modern celebration of the historic clubs, stages, basements, and bars that continue to cultivate the creative character of uptown jazz. Showman’s Jazz Club is a cozy nightspot nestled within the vibrant corridor of 125th Street, and adjacent to other renowned temples of talent, such as the nearby Apollo Theater (also one of the Festival’s partners). As a legendary residence in the global neighborhood of jazz, Showman’s is a fitting place to begin the week-long tribute to all the places and peoples that encompass the formative roots and future blossoms of jazz in Harlem.
Along the wall behind the bar, Eartha Kitt, Duke Ellington, and numerous other portraits of celebrated black musicians emphasized the immediacy of meaning for the venue as a sanctuary of sound. This immediacy also resonated strongly in the words of the featured speakers, which included Laura Greer (Vice President of Programming at the Apollo), Marcia Sells (Associate VP, Program Development and Initiatives at Columbia University), Pat Cruz (Executive Director of Harlem Stage), and Robin Bell-Stevens (President and CEO of Jazzmobile). When I spoke with Bell-Stevens, who is also the daughter of legendary jazz bassist Dr. S. Aaron Bell, she emphasized the importance of nurturing the spirit of the jazz, past and present, for the community and civic audience of Harlem. Pat Cruz reinforced these ideas in her reflections that we, as a cultural community, must “bring the music back home to Harlem,” and remember not just the heritage of the expression, but also our responsibility to recognize “who we owe.”
Cruz also highlighted the staunch work of the Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival in identifying distinguished artistic visionaries over the years, and stressed the essentiality of continuing these communal celebrations of the art form. Later, as I listened to the free-flowing, frothy notes from the Patience Higgins Trio, followed by Imani Uzuri’s soaring, celestial vocals, I was reminded of George Russell’s description of jazz as “an evolving classical music,” engaging us as individuals, and uniting our collective audio canvasses across the galaxy of sound.