There are two important women that museum lovers needs to visit in New York's Harlem neighborhood: Eliza Jumel and Marjorie Eliot.
Eliza Jumel, once America's richest woman, died over a century ago, but her ghost has been widely reported to haunt the spectacular Morris-Jumel Mansion, Manhattan's oldest house. Marjorie Eliot however, is very much alive, and her Sunday jazz salon is a living museum of the Harlem Renaissance. She has been declared a cultural landmark by CityLore: the New York Center for Urban Folk Culture, and by the Citizen's Committee for New York City.
Have lunch in Harlem, then go visit the Morris Jumel Mansion around 2pm. Check the calendar to see if there's a concert or program going on (there often is) then walk a block over to 555 Edgecombe Avenue, Apartment 3F. The music usually starts around 4pm, but a huge crowd of neighbors and European tourists will probably have claimed all the seats by then. Often the crowd spills out into the hallway of the historic apartment building.
This corner of Manhattan is a bit off the beaten-path for museum lovers in New York. However, the streets themselves are like a living museum to the American Revolution and the Harlem Renaissance. Roger Morris Park which surrounds the Mansion lets you imagine for a moment what the area must have looked like when it was pastoral and far outside the city limits of New York. All around Jumel Terrrace are beautiful brownstones built in the late 1800s that later became home to the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance.
Paul Robeson lived in a home directly across the street from the Mansion. Also nearby is a private, by appointment only Museum of Art and Origins owned and curated by Dr. George Preston.
The Morris-Jumel Mansion inside Roger Morris Park was built by English Loyalists who abandoned the house when the American Revolution broke out. Later it was purchased by Eliza and Stephen Jumel who owned hundreds of acres of adjoining property. Stephen Jumel, a Bordeaux wine merchant planted grapes on the property which today may grow feral in Highbridge Park directly in front of Marjorie Eliot's apartment building. As the land was sold off and the city grid was built around the Jumel property, the area became residential.
Most notable was the "Triple Nickel" an apartment building whose nickname was given to it by Duke Ellington.
Marjorie has lived there for over 30 years. The lavish lobby is decorated with faux Renaissance friezes and its ceiling made of Tiffany glass.
"There's a comfort here. A sense of family permeates," says Marjorie. Duke Ellington once lived in the building. So did Count Basie, Jackie Robinson and Paul Robeson to name a few.
During the week, Marjorie designs the upcoming Sunday's program. It's definitely not a jam session--it's a concert and the musicians are paid. Yet, the jazz parlor has no admission fee and Marjorie is fiercely determined to keep it that way. She believes that money can't be a determining factor and that there's nothing noble about it.
"Our humanity is the thing. Jazz is African-American folk music," she explains. "I try to create a nurturing environment for art. The sadness and travails of life--those things are always there. But they provide the circumstances for creative expression and...well, it's a miracle!"
Parlor jazz was born of a tragedy. In 1992, Marjorie's son Phillip died from kidney disease. Marjorie, an accomplished actress and trained musician who was once a regular on the Greenwich Village jazz scene, turned to her piano for solace.
This led to a concert in Phillip's memory on the lawn of the Morris-Jumel mansion. Soon after, Marjorie decided to make it a standing Sunday afternoon concert.
"I wanted to take a sad story and make it into something joyous," she says. Having grown disappointed in the way that jazz music and musicians were being treated by club owners, she decided to host a public jazz salon in her very own home. Since then, she has presented a concert every Sunday from 4pm-6pm without fail.
Annually she also holds a concert on the lawn of the Morris-Jumel Mansion where it all got started. In particular, she likes to recognize the slaves that once lived and worked in the house. When the Mansion served as a military headquarters for George Washington, slaves were in residence. Later Ann Northup, wife of Solomon Northup worked as a cook at the Mansion while her husband, a free black man from upstate New York, was missing after being drugged, captured and sold by slave traders in the South.
Famously he wrote about the experience in his book "12 Years a Slave."
The experience of hearing jazz music in such an intimate space is at once transcendent and communal. Marjorie lights a few candles in the kitchen. A vase of fresh flowers is placed on a tray set with plastic cups that she will fill with apple juice for her guests. The performance begins with Marjorie at the piano, wearing a bright pink dress. (She doesn't have any sheet music.) Photographs, cards, and newspaper clippings are taped to the walls. Musicians begin to join Marjorie and eventually she leaves the piano when her son, Rudel Drears, takes over.
Cedric Chakroun, plays Nature Boy Eddn Ahbez on the flute. A woman in the audience quietly comments to a friend, "You can hear him hurtin' from here, can't you?" The friend pats her hand reassuringly. Plates with two pieces of hot, fried chicken are served. The doorbell rings and Kiochi, sitting "backstage", presses the buzzer. Percussionist Al Drears walks in and moments later is drumming in the parlor. In the hallway, a young mother is bouncing to the music, trying to settle her 3-month old baby.
The concert breaks for intermission and Cedric joins them in the hallway to softly play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
These concerts not only preserve the legacy of jazz in Harlem, they infuse it with new life for contemporary audiences. Given the context of the historic "Triple Nickel" apartment building, it's truly a living museum of Harlem Renaissance history.
"People often ask me what surprises me most about these concerts and I always tell them that it's my audiences," says Marjorie. "People from the building don't come, but people from all over the city and all over the world do. Rain or snow, I've never had less than 30 people here." Indeed, tour guide books of New York written in Italian, French and German almost all contain a listing for Marjorie's jazz salon. More Europeans know about her and the Morris-Jumel Mansion than New Yorkers do.
On this particular Sunday, a group of Italians in their early 20's has taken over the kitchen. A man from Uzbekistan is joyously giddy to be hearing the music that he studied underground in the USSR. (He heard about the jazz parlor while waiting in line for tickets for the Metropolitan Opera. He asked where he might hear good jazz in New York and was told that the best place was uptown at Marjorie's.
But for Marjorie, this is still about her son. It is now also for the second son she lost in January 2006. "For me, quietly, this is all about Phillip and Michael."
Roger Morris Park, 65 Jumel Terrace, New York, NY 10032
Saturday, Sunday: 10am-5pm
Children under 12: Free
555 Edgecombe Avenue, Apt 3F, New York, Ny 10032
Every Sunday from 4pm-6pm
Free, but a donation in the box at the back of the room is used to pay the musicians