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Monday "Celebrity Nights" at Minton's (1941/2)

(Pictured: Thelonious Monk, trumpeters Howard McGhee and Roy Eldridge, and club manager Teddy Hill in 1947)

In late 1940 Minton's owner, Henry Minton, hired ex-band leader Teddy Hill as manager, to revive the Harlem club's sagging fortunes after two years of operation. In early 1941 Hill in turn engaged Kenny Clarke, who had played in Hill's orchestra, to organise a house band for Minton's Monday "Celebrity Night" jam sessions, giving him free rein regarding the musical programme. His choice for pianist was Thelonious Monk. Dizzy Gillespie and the brilliant electric guitarist Charlie Christian, who would become the star of the 1941 sessions, also began turning up regularly. Hill apparently picked Clarke initially as leader on the basis that the "experimentalists" would provide something different and would come cheaper than established players. Word quickly got out that Minton's on Mondays was a place to sit in, and the club was soon packed with big-name musicians, including band leaders Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and soloists Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Hot Lips Page, Ben Webster and Don Byas, either listening or waiting their turns to play.

In the fall of 1941 Charlie Parker, an obscure alto player, started to attract attention at after-hours jams at another Harlem club, Monroe's Uptown House. Clarke, in the Parker biography "Bird Lives!", recalled that "Bird was playing stuff we'd never heard before. He was into figures I thought I'd invented for drums. He was twice as fast as Lester Young and into harmony Lester hadn't touched. Bird was running the same way we were, but he was way ahead of us. I don't think he was aware of the changes he had created. It was his way of playing jazz, part of his own experience." Clarke and Monk made arrangements for Parker to move to Minton's, where Parker emerged as a leader of the new music after Charlie Christian's death in March 1942 (at 25, from tuberculosis). Hill refused Clarke's and Monk's request to hire Parker for the house band, so they paid him from their own salaries. Over time, other budding stars of bebop - Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro and others - would be drawn over to Minton's to join the revolution. According to Barry Kernfeld, editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, "the sessions became famous for demonstrations of virtuosity - unexpected harmonies, fast tempos, unusual keys - that discouraged those whose style did not fit in well. These experimental sounds were crucial to the development of bebop."

The original Minton's operated for nearly three decades before declining in the late 1960s and finally closing in 1974. After being shuttered for three decades, it reopened after renovation in May 2006 as "Uptown Lounge at Minton's Playhouse", before closing again in 2010. The venue began its third life in 2013, after a further renovation and under its original name "Minton's Playhouse", as an upscale restaurant and jazz club.

Sources: "The Making of Jazz" by James Lincoln Collier; American National Biography; Wikipedia (Minton's Playhouse, Bebop, individual players).


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