I had seen the Jazz Museum posters beckoning me from the Metro-North Harlem 125th Street station. Somehow, despite growing up in a jazz-filled home, I had not yet visited. So on a blustery Sunday, I decided to board the train with my 10-year-old music-loving son and check it out.
We had chosen this particular Sunday because on the second Sunday of the month, the museum offers free intergenerational jam sessions for visitors from 2 to 5 p.m. On our visit, there was a quintet playing led by pianist Eli Yamin. Yamin heads up the Jazz Power Initiative, a non-profit dedicated to getting youth excited about jazz. Additional musicians in the quintet included a bassist, a drummer, a trumpet player, and an alto saxophonist. The musicians ranged in age from a 19-year-old saxophonist to an elder statesman of jazz - a trumpeter who played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Count Basie Orchestra. “We can get from 70 to 80 people in attendance at these events,” says Yamin, who loves the live events at the museum. “We want to teach kids that jazz is a living art form and these sessions do exactly that.”
My son loved the intimate space and a chance to see the musicians up close. “Look how quickly the drummer moves his hands,” he pointed out. And he wasn’t the only child in attendance. On our visit, we saw toddlers to teens tapping their feet during the performance, which consisted of three sets. Audience participation was encouraged and in the second set audience members had a chance to jam with the musicians.
During the first set, Yamin announced that it was Walter Perkins’ birthday (a deceased drummer) so the band was going to pay homage to him. He noted that Perkins was famous for saying, “There are no stars in the band. We are all part of a team,” and then the quintet played beautifully together. In true jazz fashion, each band member had a chance to improvise as they flexed their musical muscles.
When you first walk into the 1,900-square-foot museum, you’ll see Duke Ellington’s white baby grand piano. There was also an old-fashioned phonograph, along with a radio and piano, which were major staples in most living rooms during Harlem’s heyday. Other highlights at the museum include Harlem Air Shaft sheet music from Duke Ellington and access to the Savory Collection, an acclaimed treasure trove of more than 100 hours of live recordings of jazz legends made from New York City radio broadcasts aired between 1935 and 1941.
We liked a map of historic Harlem nightclubs from the 1930s such as The Savoy Ballroom and The Cotton Club. It was clear that the area was once teeming with several dozen nightclubs. The map also mentioned that there were 500 illegal speakeasies where musicians could often be found playing, which my son found interesting.
The museum seeks to show the evolution of this indigenous American art form and how its roots can be found in songs from other popular musicians such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Prince. “The museum is a great place to explore both the past and future of jazz music. It is the perfect place for parents and their kids to learn together,” explains Sam Ginsberg, the museum’s education and programming assistant.
Because the museum is so small in size and the material requires at least a baseline understanding of the music, it is best for kids ages 10 and up. Be sure to check out the calendar of events at jazzm
Stacey Pfeffer is a writer and editor based in Chappaqua.
The National Jazz Museum in Harlem
58 W. 129th St.
New York, N.Y.
Thursday through Monday: 11a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed Tuesday and Wednesday
Adults and children ages 12 and up: $10 suggested donation
Children under 12 are free