New York City’s Harlem, America’s Black cultural capital, continues to sprout nouveaux eateries, upscale franchises and other in-vogue gathering places at a dizzying pace. Renowned saxophonist Bill Saxton joined the fray more than a year ago with his introduction of Bill’s Place, a jazz venue.
“This was always my dream, to bring music to the people uptown and make a difference,” Saxton says.
Bill’s Place is located at 148 W. 133rd St. between Lenox and Seventh avenues, on a residential, tree-lined street a few blocks from Harlem’s main thoroughfare, 125th Street. It is housed on the main floor of a renovated four-story brownstone owned by the musician and his wife, Theda Palmer Saxton.
Saxton’s concept of live jazz in “the living room” is a throwback to the 1930s, when parlor parties were the rage in Harlem as musicians trekked uptown from their downtown gigs to jam the night away. While the renovated space is smaller than the huge parlors of old, it has an intimate ambience and swinging music.
“Bill’s Place is an historical continuum of jazz in Harlem, a parlor setting where creative and intellectual happenings will occur. This is a place where young people can come to learn about the music,” says arranger-composer Sinclair Acey, Saxton’s longtime friend and college roommate at the New England Conservatory.
Bill’s Place is also the home of The Harlem Jazz Scene Inc., Saxton’s nonprofit organization the goal of which is to preserve and perpetuate jazz in Harlem. Acey is the organization’s chief operating officer.
When Saxton and his wife purchased the brownstone, they had no idea of the rich history associated with their new home or the block on which it stands. That history is steeped in the Prohibition era of the late 1920s, when the sale of liquor went underground into speakeas-ies and brownstone basements. The corridor that became known for swinging jazz, liquor and sometimes marijuana was none other than 133rd Street. Downtown whites called it “Jungle Alley,” but that did not stop them from finding their way there to party with Blacks until morning in clubs like the Nest and Mexico’s. The late great singer Billie Holiday once remarked that 133rd Street “was the real swing street, like 52nd Street tried to be.”
During the 1920s, the Saxtons’ brownstone was a hot party spot and restaurant. Tillie Fripp served her famous chicken and waffles in the basement and Billie Holiday was the young singer, accompanied by house pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith.
Today, Saxton has plans for a recording studio in the basement and ongoing music workshops and master classes for young people. “We have a mentoring program for young musicians, which is the beginning of our Harlem youth band,” he says. “We also have a jazz literacy curriculum where we go into schools and teach jazz.”
Saxton’s wife, an author and professor of intercultural and interpersonal communications at Pace University, will conduct communication workshops for women. Musicians currently use the main floor for rehearsals, but the space also is rented out for nonprofit fund-raisers and business meetings.
Saxton performs two shows on Friday nights, at 10 p.m. and midnight, with drummer Deon Parson, pianist Noriko Kamo and bassists Aaron James or Zaib Shakri. Saturday nights are set aside for special events and guest performances. Musicians such as Bobby Watson, the late John Hicks, Curtis Lundy, Patience Higgins, Joe Chambers, Cynthia Holiday, T. K. Blue and Andy McCloud have appeared on the small parlor stage. Since space is limited, reservations are a must. Call 212-281-0777.