Minton’s Playhouse began as a place of residence and respite for road-weary touring musicians and New York City regulars eager for a place to play freely. Saxophonist, Henry Minton, opened the venue in 1938, after becoming the first black delegate to the Local 802 of the Musician’s Union. Things seemed to begin smoothly enough, but did not stay that way for long. In need of restructuring as the business began to flounder, Minton called on friend and musician, Teddy Hill to take the helm as manager. It was at that time that Hill had the foresight to introduce Monday Night Jam Sessions to the club, ushering in a regular wave of talent that would serve to incubate a new era in Jazz and ultimately give birth to the sound known as Bebop.
With more than a handful of stellar musicians under one roof on a regular basis, innovation is bound to occur. The bandstand at Minton’s Playhouse was as much petri dish as it was proving ground, with Nick Fenton, Joe Guy, and a budding Thelonius Monk rounding out the house band formed by bandleader, Kenny Clarke. Clarke was charged with complete creative license as musical shepherd of the venue. Minton, himself, remained famous for filling the bellies and pockets of needy musicians, making him quite popular with the have horn will travel crowd. What gave Minton the advantage as a club owner was his involvement with the union, which allowed musicians to play at his club without fear of being fined for playing without pay. Considering the amount of people presumably under contract as big band, solo, and house musicians, this loophole was likely the kind of liberation absent everywhere except in underground clubs and basement rehearsals.
Open late, Minton’s was an after-hours club for hungry patrons and musicians filing in from their marquee shows at other venues; this was the real show and they were not interested in missing it. What that open-door policy brought to Minton’s, was a laundry list of jazz giants that included Max Roach, Jerome Richardson, Charlie Christian, Hot Lips Page, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Tony Scott, and Lester Young. There were not many places where all of these musicians, reaching or well into their prime, would be willing to sit out a chance to perform with other musicians they respected and admired – Minton’s was one, if not the only exception. Imagine Miles Davis and John Coltrane deciding to play sideman for Thelonius Monk, just for the hell of it; therein lies the origin of the club’s reputation as a playground for artists who were otherwise obligated to spend their stage time playing standards and works from their own recorded catalogs, as if to suggest that a musician’s ability to reach creative nirvana is contingent upon studio release alone. Minton’s Playhouse was fueled by the contrary, establishing rivalry as much as it encouraged creative exchange, as evinced by the regular battles between heavyweight trumpeters, Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge. This was possibly jazz’s first documented version of beef, but likely without the hubris or threat of injury one faces in accordance with the legend of rap rivalry.
Instead, these musicians were playing less for the crowds and more for each other; an environment that encourages the kind of posturing that does not necessarily happen in solo or group performances where musicians are expected to work in concert. The informal setting created the circumstances necessary for artistic freedom to flourish. The evolution of jazz that occurred at Minton’s would begin under the leadership of guitarist Charlie Christian, who spent his downtime from Benny Goodman’s band at the club. Christian, known for the virtuosity and harmony with which he played, gave birth to the free wheeling and much more erratic Bebop; precisely the kind of Jazz these musicians couldn’t play in the more regimented professional settings that paid their bills and failed to encourage improvisational riffing or any other behavior that could be perceived as rule breaking. For the musicians spending their nights at Minton’s, this was their soul music and they were just as eager to have a chance to play it, as people were to hear it. While some musicians waited in vain for a chance to emerge from the wings and play into the morning, others knew that the experience of being at Minton’s was worth enough to leave their egos at the door and take a place in the audience where they were simultaneously schooled and entertained.
Those who were allowed to touch the bandstand were under close scrutiny from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in particular, who held court during jam sessions; Parker having entered after Christian’s untimely demise following a bout with tuberculosis. Charlie Parker was instrumental enough to the scene at that time to take Christian’s place as the leader of the budding movement, inducing Monk and Clarke to pay him for his presence at Minton’s out of their own salaries after Hill refused to hire him as a member of the house band. Keeping Bird by any means necessary meant keeping a very close eye and an even tighter grip on the movement they were giving birth to, especially once he came to be regarded as the leader of it. As a musical revolutionaries, the musicians at Minton’s created a genre of jazz that rose to popularity in spite of detractors to become known and named for the characteristic tug of war sound that punctuates the rise and fall of the notes pouring from horns, keys, bass, and drums. The ability to lay claim to something so special is what allowed Minton’s to compete against better known venues like The Apollo, Birdland, The Paramount, and Small’s.
What un-did much of what the sessions at Minton’s had done over decades, was disco and the disinterest that followed suit. By the 1970’s, the dance music craze that had managed to usher in club culture and cast aside so many other musical styles had finally infected Minton’s, struggling by then since the 60’s. Since that time, the original appointments and overall charm have been stripped away and plans to restore the venue to its original grandeur as a functional and hallowed establishment have faltered repeatedly. Until recently, Minton’s has been the sum of its remaining parts, which were little more than the large neon sign affixed to the exterior. Much like the genre it is famous for pioneering, Minton’s has begun to experience a bit of a rebirth, as today’s innovators take to stages around the city and garner the kind of praise that jazz likely has not seen since the salad days of Minton’s. Aside from the fact that the club itself probably deserves to be designated as a national landmark, the bandstand deserves to return to its rightful place as a launch pad of experimentation and musical exchange. In an era when musicians complain of fewer venues in which to let their hair down safely and concern themselves with nothing more than their deepest feelings and potentially cutting-edge ideas without corporate interest or public scrutiny, it is important that Minton’s Playhouse and venues like it receive the care required to make them relevant to the musicians following in the footsteps of the innovators, musical traditions, and freedoms that made it what it once was; the place that cares less about your name and most about your chops.
Words by Karas Lamb