Arguably, America’s greatest cultural contribution to the world has been jazz music.
It may be argued with equal force that one of the most important shrines in the history of jazz was Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. Minton’s was the place where Bebop was born; the place, really, where the foundations of modern jazz were established. Founded in 1938 by the saxophonist Henry Minton (from whom the establishment took its name) Minton’s Playhouse became, over the next decade, the setting for a revolution in jazz.
Virtually everyone who was anyone in the world of jazz made his or her way to Minton’s during this period. Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian and Kenny Clarke were regular performers there. In addition, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRea, Billy Eckstine, Erroll Garner, Gene Krupa, Miles Davis, Art Tatum, Bill Evans and Art Blakey, to name just some of the giants, all played at Minton’s.
It was there, in this rather smallish Harlem nightclub, that these musicians, in the words of the immortal Ralph Ellison, “formulated…the chordal progressions and the hide-and-seek melodic methods of modern jazz.” In other words, Minton’s was not just the birthplace of Bebop, it was the place where all of what we have come to know as modern jazz was incubated.
While Minton’s is most famous for the seminal role it played in the Bebop revolution of the 1940s, the club had a vital existence through the early 1960s as a magnet for musicians who wanted to jam and continued to operate until 1974, when a fire led to the abandonment of the Cecil Hotel where Minton’s was housed. Nonetheless, in recognition of its significance in American history and culture, Minton’s Playhouse has been listed on both the National and the New York State Register of Historic Places.