For the past 25 years, Marjorie Elliot has been hosting free jazz concerts out of her New York apartment every Sunday for strangers. While serving up some of the best jazz in the city from her parlour, Harlem’s secret jazz queen of Sugar Hill is single-handedly upholding the musical legacy of a neighbourhood that nurtured legends like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday during the Harlem Renaissance.
The buzzer at #555 Edgecombe Apartment 3-F starts ringing at exactly 3:30pm every Sunday with patrons already lined up in their Sunday-best to impress the lady of the hour. Eliot, a slim, soft spoken lady with dandelion-shaped black hair and always wearing a colourful kaftan dress, embraces every single visitor.
Attending as religiously as Sunday prayer, music lovers choose Marjorie’s apartment over uptown jazz bars like Bill’s Place. The warm red lighting, mismatched cushions on 50 fold-out chairs and a real lived-in apartment, offer the kind of intimacy that no bar could provide.
Despite the DIY set-up, Eliot was officially declared a New York Institution by the City Lore: the New York Center for Urban Folk Culture in 2015. In 2016, she was the Lifetime Achievement Award winner awarded by The Guides Association of New York City (GANYC.) “Marjorie Eliot represents the very soul of New York City,” said the GANYC President, Michael Dillinger. Eliot is now officially a jazz legend.
This award, photo memorabilia, and lots of concert fliers decorate the walls of her prewar apartment. Otherwise, the instruments and their musicians take centre stage. Marjorie starts off on the piano and invites various musicians to play other instruments, sing or even recount poems.
“I need you,” she says to the audience at one point during the concert. Eliot began her Sunday jazz jams 25 years ago as a means of coping with loss. She has endured the death of her two sons and one missing. Her fourth son weeps as his hands graze the piano.
Her audience is diverse, international even. Out-of-towners often come to New York just to hear Eliot play. On one particular evening, the highlight is a rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema.” The French-born saxophonist takes an entire trip of his own, telling his story and almost getting carried away. The trumpet joins in and the crowd is delirious, he takes over, breaking out, then more clapping and cheering from the audience. Marjorie smiles contently.
When not playing, Marjorie is orchestrating the show which she has meticulously marked down. She stands in the back corner of the corridor, instructing musicians and counting beats.
It is really Marjorie that musicians come to impress. Her dancing and jamming reflect the utmost success of the performance.
In the 1920s, a social phenomenon known as the “Harlem rent party” played a major role in the development of jazz and blues music. The clandestine parties were organised by tenants to essentially raise money to pay extortionate New York City rent prices by hosting jazz soirées in their own apartments. Eliot’s secret jazz club is the kind of urban myth that hails from those times. Entering her world seems almost disorienting, transporting us a century back when jazz evenings in private apartments were a regular scene of the Harlem Renaissance. Take a sneak peek inside below and don’t forget to say hi to Marjorie for us when you go.
By Angelika Pokovba, our enfant gâtée in New York