Long before jazz made its way from Harlem to Midtown to the Greenwich and East Villages, it settled on the Upper West Side during the 70s. What made this neighborhood so attractive for both jazz performers and fans?
In an article from 1973, New York Times reporter John S. Wilson explained that “no admission fees, attractive, relaxed surroundings, well-known jazz names along with the excitement of discovering promising newcomers, and the arrival of a young, integrated, upwardly mobile population are turning the Upper West Side into a strong, new base for jazz.”
Here are some of the Upper West Side jazz hotspots from days gone by:
Located on 97th Street and Columbus Avenue stood Mikell’s, known for its spacious restaurant and plants hanging on the front window. From 1969 to 1991, Upper West Siders and jazz lovers alike could stop by to hear live music every Thursday through Sundays. Before she became a pop phenomenon, a teenage Whitney Houston made her solo debut at Mikell’s, according to the New York Times. Houston would regularly perform there with her mother, Cissy Houston, a gospel singer. Legendary music producer Clive Davis was at the restaurant one evening, saw Houston perform, and the rest is music history.
Also making history at Mikell’s was Wynton Marsalis. Before he was the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Marsalis started as a trumpet player. He had his turning point in his career when he was offered a spot in Art Blakely’s Jazz Messengers who were performing at the restaurant.
Mikell’s may have put these great musicians on the map, but unfortunately, the jazz bar is no longer on the Upper West Side. It closed its doors in 1991.
The Cellar was another jazz restaurant that didn’t charge audiences with admissions. If Monty Alexander decided to swing by 95th Street and Columbus Avenue to perform, the owner wouldn’t raise the price of drinks or charge at the door.
This fly on the wall jazz club was located at the bottom of a brownstone at 103 West 86th Street. Strykers played live music on Friday and Saturday and was especially popular with young couples in the neighborhood. Olivia Taylor, the manager, and part-owner attributed this to the location convenience. Stryker’s also didn’t charge any admission or minimum fee cover fee. Upper West Siders could swing by and see the likes of Chet Baker, Lee Konitz, Joe Puma, and Chuck Warne perform on some nights. “There are a lot of young people coming into the [Upper West Side],” explained Taylor. “They’re buying homes, raising families, and taking a great concern with the neighborhood. It’s what I feel New York City should be like.”
Somewhere along with the neighborhood, jazz restaurant, Rust Brown, was bursting with excitement. The New York Times described it as “Its brightly lighted walls are covered with sports pictures. Athletes and show business personalities turn up regularly, and the conversation is so exuberant that Herman Foster, a piano whose trio plays there from Wednesday through Sunday, has to project as strongly as possible to compete with the patrons.”
Owners Art Rust Jr., a former NBC sportscaster, and Lloyd Brown, a retired Transit Authority employee, designed Rust Brown to be an uptown Toots Shor’s. The original inspiration was owned by Bernard “Toots” Shor during the 1940s and 1950s in Midtown. Toots Shor’s was the place to see and be seen. It was frequented by his celebrity pals such as Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra, who reportedly ate for free. According to urban folklore, it was at Toots Shor’s where Yankee Yogi Berra is said to have met Ernest Hemingway and mistook him for a journalist. Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and Orson Welles are also have said to have been to the restaurant. Nowadays, the Toots Shor glory days are over. Columbia Doctors Midtown has replaced the establishment.
Composer George Gershwin and his brother, lyricist Ira, also lived on the Upper West Side. Walk by 501 West 110th Street, and you’ll notice a plaque outside the building, which proudly states that this apartment was where the Gershwin brothers lived in 1924, the year they wrote Rhapsody in Blue.
Two other jazz greats – Miles Davis and Duke Ellington – lived on the UWS. They certainly left their marks on the neighborhood; so much so that they both had streets named after them.
While the changing times brought about a change of scenery, jazz has still found a home base here in the Upper West Side. Swing by Smoke Jazz and Supper Club, Dizzy’s Club, and Jazz at Lincoln Center to fill the soul with jazz.