Bill’s Place in Harlem Bringing Bebop Back Home
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Bringing Bebop Back Home
CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times
Around 8 p.m. on a recent Saturday, a few dozen people were gathered in a narrow, dimly lit Harlem brownstone. Couples smoked in the backyard beneath Christmas lights; a group of Chilean expats sought a corkscrew; a man and his young son searched for seats.
From the basement downstairs, Bill Saxton, a bebop saxophonist, could hear the anticipatory chatter. All these people had come to his place. A few minutes later, standing with his band in the tiny parlor, he honked his sax loudly. The track lights dimmed.
“Welcome to Bill’s Place,” he told the crowd.
Every Friday and Saturday night, 148 West 133rd Street becomes a B.Y.O.B. jazz club that is perhaps the only underground spot left in a neighborhood that once teemed with them. Mr. Saxton boasts that visitors come from all over the world, drawn by word of mouth (and, increasingly, reviews on Yelp and TripAdvisor).
Upon entering, guests are greeted by Joseph Landon, the club manager and a family friend of Mr. Saxton. (Mr. Landon calls him “Unc.”) He accepts the $20 cover charge and opens any alcohol that patrons have brought.
Mr. Saxton, 68, is an accomplished saxophonist. He grew up in Harlem when a curious kid could walk from 145th Street down to 125th and hear music every step of the way. During the neighborhood riot of 1964, Mr. Saxton “ended up with” his first saxophone — missing the neck and mouthpiece — and he mastered it during an 18-month stint at Auburn State Prison. “Something bad happened to me that turned into something good” is how he puts it. “When I came out of there, any song I heard, I could play.”
In 1969, Mr. Saxton matriculated at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he helped found a social arts club, the Black Avant Garde, and began gigging with other jazz musicians. Over the next four decades, he traversed the globe, playing with the likes of Pharaoh Sanders, Clark Terry and Tito Puente.
In 2004, Mr. Saxton and his wife, Theda Palmer Saxton, a writer, bought the building on West 133rd Street, intent on opening a jazz club. The place was in disastrous shape, but a “supernatural” vibe pulled the Saxtons in. During the Prohibition era, the block was the site of a number of speakeasies, cabarets and jazz clubs. It was New York’s original Swing Street, where figures like Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Gladys Bentley and Willie “The Lion” Smith retreated after hours. No. 148 was Tillie’s Chicken Shack and, later, Monette’s Supper Club, where, legend has it, the record producer John Hammond first heard a 17-year-old Billie Holiday.
The music you hear today at that address retains some of the urgency of the past. On that recent Saturday night, in the minute room that held the stage was, 10 people sat a mere two feet from the performers. The rest of the audience crowded into the adjoining room to watch via a pass-through window, cozied up to sweating bottles and one another. The drums, keys, bass and saxophone were engaged in a loud, athletic call and response, each snare rasp greeted by the low thwack of an upright bass, every tinkling piano chord answered by the bleat of a tenor sax.
Mr. Saxton, in a porkpie hat, tapped his left foot as he played, his fingers flying. The big gold ring on his right pinkie caught the light. Between songs, he relayed the history of the brownstone, up to his arrival. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “Kind of like Billie Holiday.”