A Jazz Heart Still Beats in Harlem

A man in a wooly hat strummed a double bass outside a grand and tired-looking brownstone on 130th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Snow settled on his shoulders and he kept his eyes shut. His job was to entice passersby, because behind the red door to the basement, a performance was in full flow: flautist, trumpeter, saxophonist, and keyboardist, all playing jazz at full throttle.

This scene from February 2016 is reminiscent of one that has replayed again and again at this address for almost 100 years. Back in 1922 the New Amsterdam Musical Association made this building its home and started the legendary Monday Night Jam.

This venerable union now seeks to preserve and celebrate the legacy of black music in Harlem at a time when the area is rapidly gentrifying. “Harlem is disappearing. For a person of color this place has so much history,” said Katrina Libertelli, an artist and regular performer. In her role as the financial officer, the dreadlocked Libertelli, who also sings and performs spoken word poetry, sits by the front door each Monday night at a small table taking the suggested $5 donation from guests.

The New Amsterdam Musical Association actually predates the jam night. It formed in 1904, at a time when black musicians were excluded from musical unions in Jim Crow-era New York City. It became the first labor union of its kind for black musicians in the United States, making it one of the most important, but least well-known, historical institutions in New York City.

The Association went from strength to strength and became a key cultural reference point for jazz music during the Harlem Renaissance from the 1920s through to the 1950s. Some of the biggest names in jazz were members, including Eubie Blake and Charlie Parker.

The New Amsterdam Musical Association has faded somewhat since then, as many of the great jazz venues that used to dominate Harlem declined, like St Nick’s pub and Minton’s Playhouse, both now closed. These days the historic building opens its doors to the public every Monday night and for special event nights. At a Black History Month event on February 27 the place was packed, as members of the organization took to the stage and belted out funk and jazz numbers.

And indeed, the building is full of atmosphere when the musicians take the small stage. For some of its members, it became a home away from home. “Coming here has been the best thirteen years of my life,” said Arthur Brown, the Association’s vice-president.

The old union weathered a financial storm in 2009 when New York City threatened the group with a property lien, and its main concern at the moment is securing Landmark status to help fund a much-needed renovation of the building. Special grants for architectural restoration become available with such status.

The 111 year-old organization proudly gives a home to musicians young and old, and anyone can walk in the door to come and watch a jam. The New Amsterdam Music Association wants to create something new but also something that is influenced by its rich history, said Brown. “I call it a new Harlem renaissance.”