Harlem Hep Cats

Dive into New York's swingingest jazz bar

Words: Lee Tulloch, Photography: Tony Amos
Melvin Vines
Bill Peck
Sweet Lee
Catherine Harley
Bill, Melvin
Melvin Vines
the bar
Bill Peck
Samuel Hargress Jr
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From the street, it doesn’t look encouraging,

but that’s Harlem for you. A string of Christmas lights hangs limply outside, even though it’s October. There’s a little picket fence under a dismal awning. The boulevard is almost deserted. For those looking for nightlife in the big city, this is probably not anyone’s first choice. But Paris Blues is the dive of your dreams – a genuine local bar with sizzling hot jazz run by Harlem’s coolest cat.

Inside, it’s hardly more salubrious, with a few desolate bottles propped behind the bar and a haphazard collection of dusty objects, posters and framed prints that can hardly be called décor. There’s a makeshift stage and a few wooden booths. The barmaid pours drinks with little interest.

We’ve come here with local Ben Widdicombe, an Australian author and New York Times columnist,  who stumbled on the bar some time ago and now counts himself as one of the regulars. From his description, I’m expecting to drop in for a drink, soak up a bit of authentic atmosphere, and leave.

We stay all night or, at least, until the last muso packs up his drum kit.

A long bar fills most of the room. The place isn’t full, and we’re directed to stools at the top of the bar, so close to the stage we could probably reach over and play drums from there. There’s no cover charge, just a minimum two drinks – beer, bad wine, hard liquor.

But no one is here for the fine dining. The jazz is sizzling. First up it’s Brooklyn gal Sweet Lee, on sax. Veteran saxophonist Bill Peck is jamming with her band. When there’s a break in the music, Mr Amos asks the photogenic Mr Peck if he has any objection to being photographed. All the musos are cool with this, and Mr Amos spends the evening alternately crouched by the side of the stage and jammed under the front of the bar shooting the images, while chugging down his share of Jack Daniels.

Next up are Australian musical director Catherine Harley and The Brooklyn Allstars, featuring trumpeter Melvin Vines.  The musos from the first band hang around and jam with the second. The bar has become steadily more crowded and now the tiny space is crammed with about thirty people, all having a wild time. The vibe is so friendly, we’re embraced like regulars.

As the evening winds down, tip jar is passed around and CDs are sold. The musicians are clearly doing it for love, with a bit of chump change on the side. But, as Mr Amos says, ‘The music is better there than anything I’ve seen in downtown New York, by a country mile.’ (In fact, it’s probably about six city miles from downtown.)

For the last set, the owner of the bar, Samuel J Hargress Jnr, turns up, sharply dressed in fedora and zoot suit to chill. He opened the bar 40 years ago and remains a cool lounge lizard if ever there was one.

As we stagger out onto the cold boulevard, tipsy on bad liquor and great jazz, we’re reminded that watching the joy of musicians jamming is one of the peak human experiences.

Paris Blues, 2021 Adam Clayton Powell Jnr Boulevard.

If you’re looking to stay in the ‘hood, we recommend  visiting Harlemonestop and nycgo.com for up to date hotel information.

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