Jazz Musicians Struggle to Find Work in Gentrifying Harlem


Emily Braden stands in front of the shuttered St. Nick's Pub, which closed in March. (Photo by Myeisha Essex)

Emily Braden’s powerful voice dances over up-tempo beats; it’s another night of jazz at Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village, which has drawn a full crowd on a Monday night.  Tall and confident, Braden commands the crowd’s attention through her two-hour act. What did she think of the performance? “It was too quiet for me,” she responds.

She had a gig at Showman’s Bar on West 125th Street a few weeks back, a club where the legendary Sarah Vaughan once performed.  Braden loved the energy and atmosphere. She says she’s “all about that uptown thing!”

“There is a little more groove and room for musicians to experience and play regularly,” she says of the Harlem scene. “I wish there were more venues up here.”

There used to be. While New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, Harlem is known as its incubator. Since the Roaring Twenties, commonly called the Jazz Age, Harlem has been a mecca, full of jam sessions and jazz clubs. But the scene has suffered in recent decades, the victim of financial devastation, the crack epidemic and high crime rates. Today, while uptown remains an attraction for tourists and jazz fans, older musicians tell Braden, “Harlem is not what it used to be.”

In 2007, Harlem lost Copeland’s Restaurant, famous for jazz dinner shows, and Harlem Grill.  The following year, Big Apple Jazz Club on Seventh Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets shut down, including EZ’s Woodshed, a day club in the back of the building.  A Popeye’s Chicken now occupies the Big Apple’s original location at 135th Street and Seventh Avenue. On 118th Street, Minton’s Playhouse, a club that’s had a shaky lifespan over seven decades, reopened in 2006, only to close its doors again last year. Dozens of uptown restaurants that gave performers showcases have gone out of business; only a handful of clubs have survived the economic downturn.

As fans travel uptown hoping to experience jazz, musicians travel downtown to get paid. Harlem offers few opportunities to work.

As gentrification has caused rents to rise, thriving clubs rely on owning their buildings. “Those who are quite successful or holding their own are, for one, those who own the building—not rent it,” says Joan Gaylord, a member of and donor to the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, citing conversations with local club owners.

Jazz fans still travel to the neighborhood in flocks, with jazz tours a popular attraction. Loren Schoenberg, executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, says that since the neighborhood has diversified, so have the crowds.

Gaylord remembers when it was risky for a white woman to travel uptown alone to listen to jazz. “Fifteen years ago when I would walk over to 125th Street, people I know were appalled. Now I don’t think a thing of doing it,” says Gaylord.

Now jazz fans from all over the world visit Harlem, their numbers varying with dollar’s relationship to the euro and the yen.

But as  gentrification is diversifying Harlem, it also erodes the core of its musical history. “I am a part of gentrification but I want to help change and benefit Harlem. I want to benefit the culture,” says Braden a few days later, gazing at the bright red building that once was St. Nick’s Pub.

St. Nick’s closed earlier this year. “It was March 4th and seems like forever,” says Floyd Biriandvis, its ex-manager. The staff is only waiting for a liquor license to reopen, he says. “We all miss it.”

For Braden, the closing was an emotional moment. Braden, who’s 29,  left Boise, Idaho for the possibility of singing like Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan. Her travels took her to Oregon and British Columbia before she settled two years ago in a West 147th Street and Amsterdam apartment that’s just a block from the now-shuttered club. St. Nick’s provided fun, friends and most importantly, she says, work.

A lot of local musicians played there. “It’s a good place to go and make music and feel comfortable. It was a place to go up here,” she said.

At Harlem’s remaining clubs—Lenox Lounge, Smoke, the Cotton Club, Showman’s, American Legion Post 398 and Bill’s Place—gigs are very competitive and hard to come by.

When she’s not downtown, Braden often sings at Shrine on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd, a cool venue with vinyl records everywhere, she says. She adds, “You get the tips and, like, 20 percent of the bar, but I’ve never made money there.”

Schoenberg believes fans would be shocked to know the economic realities for most successful jazz musicians. “They make less than your first year lawyer, they make less than, probably, an executive secretary,” he says. “They definitely make less than a well-paid New York schoolteacher.” Although jazz has never been lucrative, he says, musicians are particularly struggling in the current economy.

“Work is not what used to be. I do know firsthand that a lot of the places to play uptown, the pay is so low it is almost impossible to live off,” says Brandee Younger, a 28-year-old harpist who plays in jazz ensembles. Downtown has more places to make a dollar. Younger teaches private lessons to supplement her pay.

Braden also has a day job: she works three to five days a week interpreting  Spanish at a medical center and feels lucky to have flexible hours. After work she makes time for jam sessions downtown, where gigs pay as little as $50 to $100 a player. “It’s really rough,” she says.

Meghan Stable, founder of the Revive Music Group, works to bridge the gap between popular music and jazz by organizing events and creating gigs for younger musicians, plus publishing The Revivalist, an online journal about preserving jazz culture. Braden is a big fan of Stable’s work. “What she is doing is very creative,” Braden says. “She is making some great things happen for younger musicians.”

Jaleel Shaw, a saxophonist for Roy Haynes, played Harlem more in the beginning of his career in the early 2000s.  “I used to do jam sessions, but there’s a lack of venues. That’s why a lot of people think it’s not growing,” he says.

Shaw lives in New Jersey but travels to support the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. “Back in the day, Langston Hughes lived up here and was performing up here,” he says.  “I think that everyone who lives in Harlem should know who John Coltrane, Johnny Parker and Duke Ellington are.”

For the past six years, the museum has hosted a series of educational and community events to celebrate jazz. “Thank God we are doing okay and holding our own,” says Schoenberg.

By Myeisha Essex



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