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Jazz Notes: Gin Fizz Brings Back the Spirit, Soul and Innovation of an Old-Time Speakeasy in Harlem

Photos by  Caroline Conejero.
Left: Marc Cary’s band; right, Francesco Pini

By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, February 12, 2016

It’s a Thursday night in Harlem at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue (aka Malcolm X Boulevard) and juicy uptown jazz is ready to cook. The street is relatively quiet at 10:30 p.m., but upstairs above the restaurant Chez Lucienne the lights at the one-year-old music space Gin Fizz are dimly lit and a slow flow of musicians are arriving with their horns for the weekly Harlem Sessions jams that often stretch into three or four the next morning.

The young musicians open an unmarked door between Lucienne and its restaurant neighbor Red Rooster and make their way up a narrow stairway to the second floor where the joint will soon be jumping. Downstairs there’s no sign to announce what’s really going on, but word of mouth by the musicians and the growing audience seems to be working out just fine without a neon-lit Gin Fizz placard.

The show runner, Marc Cary, who was the last pianist to accompany the late jazz vocalist legend Abbey Lincoln, has laid out his electronic keyboard gadgets and is sitting at the Steinway as his regular crew begins to filter in for a modern-day speakeasy. “This is totally unique in Harlem,” he says. “This is old school where we’re all engaging with improvisation with new and old music to develop a repertoire.”

Harlem was well known in the days of its early 1900’s renaissance as a neighborhood teeming with artistic brilliance often found in underground spaces. All you have to do is recall how the seventeen-year-old Billie Holiday was discovered in 1933 in a speakeasy in a rough section of town at Lenox and 133rd Street. Talent scout/producer John Hammond (who later also discovered and recorded Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, among others) was so taken by her emotive vocal prowess that he made her a star.

The speakeasy scene (hangs with music and booze often opening and then quickly shuttered by authorities because they weren’t official clubs) continued for several decades. But as Harlem became blighted by crime, gangs and drugs in the ‘70s, Harlem was considered off-limits for jazz fans.

Gin Fizz brings the speakeasy back to life in Harlem, which has become visitor friendly. In the narrow, rectangular-shaped second-floor space, there’s a long bar with stools, small tables where waitresses take drink orders and a long couch for a lounging listen on the left side of the stage. The slightly elevated stage itself, which can handle a drummer, bassist, and several horns in addition to the Steinway, is at the end of the room in front of a red velvet curtain.

Everything is casual, and the vibe is drawing crowds, especially veteran jazz artists to just sit back and check things out. On the night I was there, vocalist Allan Harris (with his manager/wife Pat) were on a couch and later tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman came by, thinking of moving to New York from his European home.

Cary got the house hot right off on his first chords as he led the pickup band through tunes ranging from updated swinging standards to a Curtis Mayfield funky number with the horn players coming up at different stretches to spice up the affair. At one point, Cary jumped up and yelled to the audience: “It’s not where you all from, it’s where you’re at.” He paused and barked: “Where you at?” The crowd meekly responded: “Harlem” It was not good enough. He asked again and got a booming “Harlem” reply. He smiled.

Unlike other jam sessions where players come to just join together communally or try to outdo each other in cutting style, Cary’s speakeasy session is structured, in the sense that he posts at the Harlem Sessions Facebook page the songs they’ll be workshopping. It’s his 33rd week shepherding the Harlem Sessions and he’s also celebrating his 49th birthday. “We’re building a repertoire, engaging with the songs and the sounds to create an ensemble,” he says. “It’s not about who’s the best soloist. It’s more about the music and playing as a group. So when you know the music we’re going to be playing—and practicing it beforehand—you won’t be lost if we call a tune.”

Back in the old days, the prerequisite for engaging in jam sessions was knowing the tunes backwards and forwards. You had to know the songs or else you’d be ushered off the stage (or worse). Still Cary says that anyone wanting to join in has got to be ready. “The music is the gatekeeper in these sessions,” he says, “so when I call it, you’ve got to play it.”

There are guests who drop into the sessions, including vocalists, rappers, tap dancers and even the harmonica playing of Francesco Pini, who is the artistic director of the club and the door host. He’s also the founder of the Wednesday-through-Sunday music scene here.

Gin Fizz is young, but it’s garnering serious cred. “We’re serving a new generation of musicians who have solid roots in jazz, but also grew up with hip-hop,” he says. “Gin Fizz is not a classic jazz club, and we’re definitely not a classic jazz dinner club like the Blue Note or Smoke. The difference is that we’re a late-night spot with music starting just as the other clubs are closing. We create the atmosphere here with the velvet and we even create smoke to give it the feel of ‘30s Harlem.”

Pini says that the club is not confined to jazz, as there’s a DJ night in addition to special shows by rising-star artists from Harlem. “There’s a lot of history in this neighborhood,” he says. “We’re close to the Apollo and like there, we are adding to the vibration of music in the air.”

The space became available thanks to restaurateur Alain Chevreaux, whose French bistro-styled Chez Lucienne predated Red Rooster in the hood. “Alain was a pioneer up here,” Pini says. “He sold the restaurant, but kept the second floor for ‘something special.’ So he called me up and gave me carte blanche to put a jazz scene together here like the old days so that it would be more like a hang.”

Pini, a guitarist and harmonicist, knew the area’s artists and knew Cary via Abbey Lincoln, whose dream was to carry on the great jazz traditions of the masters in Harlem. “So, Abby is definitely in the air here. We’re paying tribute to her with what we are doing. We’re hoping with the Harlem Sessions to define a new Harlem sound, with these young cats who are coming to play Marc’s arrangements. Hip-hop plays a big role in what he’s doing and sometimes we’ll have MCs and hip-hop artists participating in free style.”

With his variety of shows—including locally based singers and CD release parties—Pini is hopeful that in its second year of operation, the music will only get better. “We’ve had a lot of support from the Harlem community,” he says. “And now people are coming here from outside the neighborhood. Marc is generous and passionate,and people are realizing how important his Harlem Sessions are.”

For upcoming events, visit ginfizzharlem.com. Presently all these shows, especially Harlem Sessions, are free, but soon there may be a $10 entrance charge. Still, not bad for some of the most exciting and freshest music in town.


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