Remembering the Lenox Lounge
On a cold Saturday night last month, a day after what should have been the end of the world, there were no sighs of relief to be heard at the Lenox Lounge, Harlem's storied bar and jazz club that closed on December 31.
Houston Person, a tenor saxophonist whose particular brand of wistful expression seemed fit for a sad occasion, was playing at the club, a beautiful Art Deco relic on Lenox Avenue near the corner of 125th Street.
Droves of people—young and old, black and white—crammed into the space's back room, which has hosted the likes of Miles Davis, James Baldwin, John Coltrane, and Malcolm X. Chip White, the drummer in Person's quartet, walked casually about in a floppy beret before taking to his kit, chatting up the patrons, and ruing the club's closing.
Alvin Reed, who brought live music back to the Lenox Lounge when he bought it in 1988, would be off the lease in the new year. Reed, a retired police officer and postal worker who came by the club through an advertisement in the Amsterdam News, could not meet the price of the rent, which doubled to $20,000.
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Richard Notar, a managing partner of Nobu, now owns the space, which is a stone's throw from Red Rooster Harlem, Marcus Samuelsson's popular comfort food restaurant. The Lenox Lounge is getting a new name, Notar Jazz Club, and it's scheduled to reopen in March. (Reed owns the trademark to the club's name; he's taking it with him, along with its iconic sign.)
"What I'm going to be doing with it is everything that has been going on since Mr. Greco opened it," Notar says, alluding to the club's founder, Dominic Greco, who opened the club in 1942.
Notar, a New York native, says he'd like to liven up the club's menu and "create more range in the musical experience."
"Of course, jazz, but it can be all ranges," Notar says. "If John Legend wants to play there, I would say, 'Fantastic,' or Lady Gaga, even. I want it to be this hallowed ground of music. I want to show range, and I want to give tribute to what Harlem is."
Notar is sensitive to the fact that the club is a relic. "This is not a redesign," he says. "I'm not trying to change the Lenox Lounge's identity. But the thing needed a shot in the arm. It was really not reaching its potential lately. It was just a local spot that was OK." Still, many view the transition as signifying the end of an era.
"What you're seeing with the demise of the Lenox Lounge is just a further reflection of changing times," says Loren Schoenberg, director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. "It's not even simple enough to say that it's part of the gentrification of Harlem. There are few successful jazz clubs north of Columbus Circle.
"Alvin bravely tried to keep it going because he loves jazz so much," Schoenberg adds. "But jazz is a hard thing to present. It's sad to see it go, but it was inevitable."
Reed, broken up over the whole thing, declined to comment. ("Right now, we're really dealing with something that's kind of breaking my heart," he told WHCR radio back in November of the impending closing.)
"The club itself is an institution," says pianist Danny Mixon, who served as the lounge's entertainment manager for the past 11 years. "It's a historic landmark that never really got landmarked. For me, it meant a place that musicians could build a name."
The Lenox Lounge has lived many lives since it opened about 70 years ago, evolving through periods of stagnation and regeneration. In 1999, for example, Reed oversaw a costly renovation—funded by a $450,000 donation from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone—that restored the club's interior.
"What's in that club that they can't take away or duplicate is the spirit," Mixon says. "So many musical spirits have walked through and played there."
When the singer Eve Cornelious moved to the city about 10 years ago, she performed in the club's Zebra Room—named for its zebra-patterned wallpaper—where Billie Holiday once had a table. "They say she would always sit there, in a little booth on the left," Cornelious says. "So, of course, I had to sit there, too. I felt like I was continuing the history."
Hosting a Monday-night jam session, the drummer David F. Gibson had a residency at the Lenox Lounge with the Sugar Hill Quartet for eight years. "It was a good place for musicians to hear other musicians," Gibson says. "If you didn't have a gig there, you could go up and sit in. People would come to the Lenox Lounge just to try stuff out."
The tap dancer Savion Glover often performed at Lenox, and Wynton Marsalis—who, Notar pointed out, happens to be his friend—sat in on occasion. Danny Glover, Wendell Pierce, and Lillias White have all had cameos, as has Anika Noni Rose, who sang with the Sugar Hill Quartet before starring in Dreamgirls.
"We even had belly dancers come in with us," Gibson says. "Can you imagine that? You're not going to get that anywhere else. That's what you get at the Lenox Lounge. You can go to the Blue Note, you can go to the Village Vanguard. You're not going to see that shit.
"Spontaneity," Gibson says, settling on an idea. "You're going to find that nowhere else in New York. That's what people are going to miss about the Lenox Lounge: the spontaneity."
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