By Christina Soriano
The women donned cropped hair, cloche hats, chemise dresses and silk stockings. Gentlemen were never without their suits, watch chains or velvet-collared coats. An artists’ haven for decades, the iconic figures who were at the forefront of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and ‘30s, such as Langston Hughes, Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Augusta Savage, continue to pave the way for a new generation of artists and thought leaders of African descent. Writing, music and visual arts continue to thrive in the neighborhood and bring out the true beauty of New York City: the ability to walk freely and constantly encounter people with new views, ideas and stories.
Tucked away on West 133rd Street, it’s relatively easy to walk past the tiny historic space, Bill’s Place. Billie Holiday was discovered there in 1933, and nearly 70 years later jazz musician Bill Saxton revived it with his wife, writer and long-time arts advocate Dr. Theda Palmer Saxton. After purchasing the building in 2004, they were compelled to recreate and celebrate the historic spirit of the space.
A former speakeasy in the 1920s, you automatically feel a generous energy as club manager Rachel takes your coat and calls you by first name like you’ve been friends for years, welcoming you inside. It’s hard not to chat with the people around you since the venue seats roughly 30-35 people. This sense of promoting community is exactly what Bill and Theda hoped for. Their club has attracted jazz greats Bertha Hope and the late John Hicks.
Dr. Theda Palmer, co-founder of Bill’s Place and author of “Heirs to Dirty Linen and Harlem Ghosts,” an in-depth study connecting the role of women during Prohibition and the establishment of speakeasies along the famous Swing Street, including the present Bill’s Place – reflects: “As a woman, I think it’s important to keep the voice of artists alive in the neighborhood. At Bill’s Place, the arts come together through writers and musicians having a place to gather.”
Don’t forget to make a reservation in advance and bring your favorite people and bubbly. Enjoy the show; if you’re as fortunate me, you’ll meet Bill himself!
A few blocks from Bill’s Place is a recent addition to the neighborhood that captures the same vitality but with a contemporary spin. Nestled underneath the acclaimed Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant Red Rooster Harlem, is Ginny’s Supper Club. Fulfilling the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, Chef Samuelsson noted, “Ginny’s Supper Club was conceptualized as a modern interpretation of the glamorous clubs and parlors that were popular in the early Twentieth Century in Harlem. Keeping the jazz-age spirit alive, we have a diverse roster of talented performers from all over the world, from reggae, rock and jazz musicians, to DJs and Gospel singers, to poets, authors and visual artists. The atmosphere is all low-lighting and gives an intimate environment to come see these shows.”
Hanging out at the bar I watched a band set up while savoring one of their signature beverages, a Fine & Mellow. There’s live music every Friday and Saturday night with a modest cover, and if you want to kick up your heels, stick around until after 11 p.m. when DJs start to spin and entire lounge turns into a dance floor.
If you’re in the mood for a more tranquil outing, check out this revered institution of Harlem’s arts community. Founded in 1968 and located on the bustling 125th Street, The Studio Museum in Harlem presents work encompassing local to international artists of African descent and those informed by African American culture. With an extensive rotating permanent collection, the Lower Level gallery is devoted to exhibits highlighting the inventory with prominent contemporary figures like Mickalene Thomas and Glenn Ligon. Throughout each exhibit you’ll see a range of media including photography, installation, video, paintings and drawings.
The museum is also home to the archives of James Van Der Zee, a paramount photographer of the Harlem Renaissance who documented the area from 1906-1983. Through June 29th, check out Carrie Mae Weems: The Museum Series, a collection of haunting self-portraits provoking viewers’ thoughts and commentary on identity and social class inequality. Weems’ work allows us to create a dialogue on uncomfortable yet necessary issues relevant to society today.
148 West 133rd Street
New York, NY 10030
Ginny’s Supper Club
310 Lenox Avenue
New York, NY 10027
The Studio Museum in Harlem
144 West 125th Street
New York, NY 10027
The Studio Museum in Harlem: Main Gallery: Photo by Scott Rudd
The Studio Museum in Harlem: Interior View: Photo by Scott Rudd
Ginny’s Supper Club Interior 1 and 2: Photo by Paul Brissman