At the newly rebooted Minton’s, you’re likely to hear some variation of “I don’t know if you know where you are right now” whispered from local scenesters to visitors, from older guests to younger kids, from jazz experts to newbies.
To be at Minton’s is to stand on hallowed musical ground. The intimate nightclub on West 118th St was founded in 1938 by the saxophonist Henry Minton and played a huge role in the life of modern jazz and in shaping Harlem as a destination for music. Minton wanted a place where his friends could come and hang out, have a bite and a few drinks, and experiment with new music. The club (then known as Minton’s Playhouse) was unpretentious and welcoming; a rare spot that granted musicians free rein to play whatever they liked. It attracted young, avant-garde performers who pushed musical boundaries and played new sounds. Bebop was born on the Minton’s stage. Musical history was made and made again.
Today, black-and-white photos of the legends who once performed there line the walls: Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Benny Goodman (Kenny Clarke and Thelonious Monk once helmed the house band). “When I got the job, man, I thought I died and went to heaven,” says Hill Greene, who played bass in the Minton’s 2.0 house band from 2014 to the beginning of 2016. “I was playing with world class musicians every night. We were existing with history.”
Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s and into the 1960s, Minton’s was where modern jazz came into its own. It was the epicenter of a lively, creative scene; the who’s who of Harlem could be found on the stage or at the tables. Over time, however, jazz became less cutting-edge, and much more of a niche scene. Clubs that were once standing room-only played to smaller and smaller crowds. Jazz clubs shut their doors. Still, Minton’s continued to operate as usual -- that is, until 1974, when a fire ravaged the building. Not much of the original interior has survived, with the exception of the colorful 1948 mural behind the stage which depicts four jazz musicians and a woman passed out on a bed. Rumor has it that the woman is Billie Holiday, sleeping off a wild night.
Nearly 40 years later, in 2013, businessman and jazz-lover Richard Parsons and restaurateur Alexander Smalls opened two operations in the old Minton’s Playhouse space: a music club -- simply called Minton’s -- and a “Afro-Asian-American” restaurant -- called The Cecil -- with a young chef, Joseph “JJ” Johnson, running the kitchens at both. The Cecil received praise almost immediately, so it came as a surprise when it was announced that it would close at the end of 2016 and merge with Minton’s, with Johnson bringing much of the restaurant’s menu over to the club.
Today -- for the first time ever -- Minton's is just as much about the food as it is the music. “Harlem is becoming a place where people want to live, be, go out, where there’s great talent and great food,” says Johnson. The new Minton’s isn’t a museum of its former self; it’s a hub of Harlem’s vibrant scene today.