June 22, 2024

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In these Harlem jazz clubs, musicians and audience became one: Video, Photos

Twenty-odd years ago, Gerald Cyrus wandered into a Monday night jam session at St. Nick’s Pub, a jazz club in Harlem. There he found a very different scene from the one downtown, where he had spent years taking photographs at the Village Vanguard and other spots.

“It was a much more communal atmosphere, like a house party,” said Mr. Cyrus. “Downtown there was a fine separation between the stage and the audience. Uptown, there was no separation. Musicians made up a large part of the audience. They’d be listeners one minute, on stage the next.”

Lenox Lounge, Harlem, 1996.CreditGerald Cyrus
Lenox Lounge, 1996.CreditGerald Cyrus
St. Nicks Pub, 1994.CreditGerald Cyrus

Mr. Cyrus, 60, began going regularly to St. Nick’s, the Lenox Lounge, La Famille and other low-key jazz bars, shooting the audience as much as the performers, because they were just as central to the pleasure. It was the mid-1990s, the late days of film cameras and cigarettes in bars, and Mr. Cyrus worked to capture not what the musicians looked like, but how the night felt: the sound, the heat, the fleeting connections among musicians and between players and audience.

Also, the hats.

St. Nick’s Pub, 1994.CreditGerald Cyrus

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Kathy Sanson and Buster Brown, both dancers, at St Nick’s Pub. 1995.CreditGerald Cyrus

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St Nicks Pub, 1997.CreditGerald Cyrus

There is still jazz in Harlem, and new spots opening each year. But the venues in Mr. Cyrus’s photographs, and the social interactions he captured, no longer exist.

From his home in Philadelphia, Mr. Cyrus, who published many of these photographs in his book, “Stormy Monday: New York’s Uptown Jazz Scene,” mourned their loss.

“You didn’t go to hear anybody in particular,” he said. “You went for the scene, and you knew the music was going to be good, because the musicians were usually seasoned sidemen. And they’d go to three or four in the morning. It didn’t bode well for me in the morning when I had to go to work. But it was definitely worthwhile.”

A Sunday night jam session at the Metro Bar, Harlem. 1994.CreditGerald Cyrus
A woman at the jukebox in Lenox Lounge, 1997.CreditGerald Cyrus
St. Nicks Pub, 1995.CreditGerald Cyrus
A couple leaving Lenox Lounge, 1997.CreditGerald Cyrus
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