Places that Matter

Marjorie Eliot's Parlor Jazz

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Marjorie Eliot's Parlor Jazz
Marjorie Eliot's Parlor Jazz
Marjorie Eliot's Parlor Jazz
Marjorie Eliot's Parlor Jazz
Marjorie Eliot's Parlor Jazz
Marjorie Eliot's Parlor Jazz
Marjorie Eliot's Parlor Jazz
Regular Sunday parlor jazz concert series
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Every Sunday at 3:30pm, soft, sympathetic strains of piano begin to mingle with loudmouthed brasses, low-toned basses, and chipper clarinet vibratos. The chords, confident but courteous, flirt in the vestibule and linger at the threshold of apartment 3F. Drifting gently into the hallway, the melodies, rhymes, and rhythms, sometimes melancholy but oftentimes merry, float out through the window and dance high above the Harlem River. For the last 23 years, Marjorie Eliot has delighted audiences with these sonorous socials, better known as parlor jazz concerts, in her home at 555 Edgecombe Avenue.

Both Marjorie and 555 Edgecombe have impressive musical pedigrees. Marjorie comes from a long line of instrumentalists, and grew up in Philadelphia with two household pianos. “My great-grandmother played. We all played,” she says. “Where I come from, if people could play, they had pianos in their homes.” Marjorie began studying music before matriculating in primary school, so piano practice was early integrated into her daily homework routine. Marjorie raised her children the same way, and immersed them in what she calls African-American classical music. “It was essential to your learning and growing up. It’s central to being a balanced person, and it’s a very big thing in black life,” she insists. “In historic black communities you could hear people dancing, you could hear people playing, the records were always going. In Africa, everything is a celebration. You know, the corn came in -- ok it’s a celebration! So this is something that black people brought in. The music celebrates.”
 
Marjorie holds the weekly concerts in celebration of her late children, Philip and Michael. Original theatricals follow directly after the music, and together the performances help her to heal and process the whirlwind of emotions that come with burying two of five children. “It so helps me. I get the greatest joy from the people who come here. It’s a little miracle, really,” she says.
 
Another son, Rudel Drears, a professional musician and actor, is a staple in Sunday performances. Together Marjorie and Rudel run Parlor Entertainment, a small business through which they promote the parlor series, where admission is always free, and guests receive granola bars and orange juice during intermission, gratis. Parlor Entertainment’s first free concert was held on the lawn of neighboring Morris-Jumel Mansion in August 1993. The following year, Marjorie brought the music and adoring audiences into 555 Edgecombe. These days, the place fills up fast. Listeners from around the world line the living room, parlor, kitchen, and even hallway, where Marjorie sets neat rows of cushioned chairs, each with a view of the performance. Some guests sit, tapping feet and hands, watching attentively, while others close their eyes and let the sounds wash over them.
 
While most visitors come to engage with New York's living musical heritage, many do not know the legacy of this particular building. Notable past tenants include esteemed singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson; pioneering pianist and bandleader, Count Basie; saxophonist Johnny Hodges; actor and civil rights champion, Canada Lee; psychologist, educator, and social reformer, Dr. Kenneth Clark; and Charles Buchanan, owner of the Savoy Ballroom. Indeed, Edgecombe Avenue is co-named Paul Robeson Boulevard, and 160th Street between Edgecombe and St. Nicholas Avenues is co-named Count Basie Place. Duke Ellington, one of Marjorie’s favorite composers, lived down the street.
 
The building, familiarly known as “555,” sits just beyond the northern cusp of the Hamilton Heights/ Sugar Hill Historic District of upper Manhattan. 555 Edgecombe is officially the Roger Morris Apartments, named after the 18th century British loyalist who owned the elevated site that now includes the Morris-Jumel Mansion and 555. The Roger Morris was constructed between 1914 and 1916, during a lower Washington Heights building boom intended to lure white, middle-class residents. However, by the mid-1940s, 555 was such a popular address in NYC’s elite African American community that it was considered part of neighboring Harlem’s prosperous Sugar Hill enclave. “It’s really about black identification,” Marjorie says. “People wanted to belong here.”
 
555, a designated city and national landmark, has long housed middle-class African American professionals working in myriad fields, including medicine, sports, music, and education. Supposedly the boxer Joe Louis lived there, as did the doctor who treated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s shot wounds. Marjorie moved to 555 in 1982, but, she recounts, “we’ve been coming here for years and years and years. This building was filled with musicians. The children’s piano teacher was on the 14th floor.” Andrew Kirk, bandleader of the Twelve Clouds of Joy, lived in apartment 14B for fifty-eight years. There he rehearsed with great musicians from around the world. His wife, Mary, was Charlie Parker's first piano teacher, and an accomplished, well-traveled musician in her own right. George Gershwin was often at the Kirk’s, and Louis Armstrong’s manager was frequently in and around the building. 
 
Since the 1920s, New York City has incubated jazz music, in formal venues ranging from concert halls, supper clubs, and recording studios, to neighborhood bars and family living rooms. Informal gatherings were common in New York’s jazz scene, and have remained popular in folk circles. Marjorie notes, 
 
some of the oldsters who lived here all those years ago would talk about house parties, and going out to rent parties. They talked about folks getting together during the Depression. It was about sharing; 'you bring this dish, you bring that dish,' and they’d have music all night long and put money in the pot. They were not going to let people get evicted. And this wasn’t just in Harlem; it was everywhere.
 
Historically, European patrons held household salons because musicians needed space to perform. Marjorie says, "I’m not trying to be the patron, but you can’t have people say, ‘I’m going to wait to get into Carnegie Hall.’ Neighborhoods should have institutions to support their own." 555 Edgecombe is still filled with musicians, thanks to Marjorie’s parlor concerts. Regular well-known performers included saxophonist Sedric Choukroun, bassist Gaku Takanashi, and trumpeter Koichi Yoshihara. Marjorie also works with a rotating roster of guest vocalists who make every Sunday show unique. Many are her students. If they measure up, she gives them a chance.
 
(February 2015)