Entertainment @ 'Minton's Playhouse'
In New York, Jazz Musicians - looking for the action found it in half a dozen after-hours clubs uptown. The most famous of these was 'Minton's Playhouse'; the laboratory in which musical experiments, about to emerge as the bebop revolution began around 1941. In spite of its' exotic name, 'Minton's' was a drab sort of a place. A marquee extending from the entrance to the curbstone, the latter painted white and zoned as a passenger-loading area, gave the club a faint aura of prestige on otherwise dingy 118th Street.
Inside there was the usual checkroom with its' divided door and coatracks, a long bar, tables, a wall with mirrors, somewhat the worse for wear, and a bandstand like those in many of the old Kansas City clubs of Pendergast days - cramped, large enough for a baby grand piano and a drum outfit, and at a stretch 5 or 6 musicians. There was no decor of note. 'Minton's Playhouse' was poorly lit, reasonably clean, attractively priced, and out of the way - the kind of place jazz musicians liked. As the word began to get around taxicabs pulled up to the faded green awning with a frequency enjoyed only by the 'in' places of those years; taxis discharged musicians easily identifiable by the trumpet and saxophone cases they carried. Had the management of 'Minton's' thoght to provide a guest book, it would have contained the name of every important jazz figure of the transition years.
The Club was named after its' owner, Henry Minton, a middle aged man who enjoyed the slight distinction of having been the first Negro ("colored" was then the official expression) delegate to Local 802, the New York Chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. Until late 1940, Minton ran the club by himself. It drew 'trade' from the Hotel Cecil, whos' lobby could be reached by a connecting door. In better days 'Minton's' premises had been the Hotel dining room. 'Minton's Playhouse' became a hangout for the old-timers, drifting in and out of the dance band business. There was no real music policy. The baby grand piano often went untouched for days. Business declined steadily until the owner bestirred himself to hire a new manager. His choice was Teddy Hill.
"Why not" he told
Henry Minton, "Hire a house band and build up the jam session business?"
And adjusting the dark gray felt hat that he wore in all seasons,
and out, to conceal the encircling bald spot on his head "throw a
night feed for artists in the stage show up at The Apollo? We could put
notice on the call board and invite everybody in the cast." Monday
was show business Sunday. 'At-liberty' night.To Henry Minton the plan
worth a try.
"Celebrity Night" at 'Minton's Playhouse', its' dinners hosted by Teddy Hill, quiet and hatted, soon became famous coast to coast. Wherever show folk or jazzmen might be working - at "The Howard" in Philadelpia, or "The Regal" in Chicago, or way out on the Coast, at "The Lincoln Theatre" in Los Angeles - the word was passed. Buffet- style dinners at 'Minton's' mustered up all of the succulent dishes, that artists had known from childhood, and could so seldom find on the road: barbecued ribs with real Creole sauce, panfried chicken,collard greens simmered with a ham-bone, sweet potato pie, candied yams, red beans and rice. Once in a while Hill 'gilded the lily' and flew in a shipment of crawdads from Kansas City or Mississippi River catfish from St. Louis. He raised the price of mixed drinks from twenty-five cents to thirty-five cents. In 1941 Teddy Hill and Henry Minton were well into the soul-food business. The Playhouse had a new lease on life. 'Minton's' became the place to go on Mondays in the early Forties.
It was also the scene of the palace revolution that overturned jazz.
Excerpts from: "The Be-bop Laboratory" by Ross Russell
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