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Minton's Playhouse and the birth of bop

Charlie Parker and other musicians worked out some of their early ideas  at Minton's
Charlie Parker would often play at Minton's Playhouse
Minton's Playhouse sponsored one of the great NYC stickball teams of the late '40s and '50s, but it true legacy is its contribution to 20th century music.

Minton's was a highly regarded jazz club that opened in 1940. It is sometimes spoken of reverentially in relation to the birth of bop (or be-bop), one of the most significant developments in the history of modern music. In order to better understand the role Minton's played in this era, Streetplay called WKCR (89.9 FM in NY) to speak with Phil Schaap, universally regarded as one of jazz's foremost historians. Schaap explained that while there is truth to the legend, the real story is somewhat more complex.

Schaap stated "Mintons was one of a number of clubs where early bop was played and it had an important role in the development of the music. Part of why it has gained such a tremendous reputation was that it remained a successful club, continuing uninterrupted for 32 years. In fact the club has since reopened so you might consider it as a 60 year institution."

What was striking about Mintons in the early 40s was the jam session policy which lent itself to a wide range of sessions in which different players could get together and experiment with their music.

Henry Minton was able to create the club from part of the dining area in the Cecil Hotel in Harlem. Minton was a clarinet player and professional musician of high regard. In fact, back in 1920 he had been elected as the first black delegate to the musicians union in NY. Unlike many other unions, the American Federation of Musicians (local 802) was integrated from its beginning.

Minton hired Teddy Hill, a successful big band leader to manage the place. Hill had a great rapport with people and was instrumental in creating the club's exciting atmosphere. This was partly due to the excellent house band which included Nick Fenton on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, Joe Guy on trumpet and Thelonious Monk on piano.

"The House Band would play the first couple of sets and then the evening's jams would start to take place. Yes, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker were there, but so were people like Count Basie and Benny Goodman. In fact you really can't talk about just a few of the players because you leave out so many. It was one of the spots frequented by the musicians of that period.

What distinguished Minton's from other clubs was while it was run like an "after hours joint," the operations were above board and "advertiseable." Minton's jam session policy provided a space for musicians to experiment and examine their music. In a sense you might describe it as a laboratory (although that's too formal a term) where players could try out new ideas. This is why it has the reputation for innovation.

While Minton's is often associated with the early days of bop, it actually gained prominence as a nightclub as time went on. Lockjaw Eddie Davis took over as manager and the jam sessions evolved towards a wider range of sessions and forms. Eventually the club focused on showcasing fixed bands."

One interesting side note we'd like to mention is that WKCR - The Columbia Radio Station in which Schaap is a DJ - was on-hand to broadcast early sessions from Minton's live back in the early '40s. For those interested in the music, WKCR continues to present some of the best jazz programming that can be found on the airwaves.

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