Harlem: The Rhythm Club
The Last Day
30 November 2006
The Last Day of The Rhythm Club was produced and screened for the Harlem in My Heart exhibition. It portrays a private social club that had existed in Harlem since the 1920s but was recently closed when the landlord raised the rent. The club was decorated with more than 300 photos I took of the members, their friends and kids from the block. I used to spend a lot of time there ; it was my, and our, home away from home. I will miss showing my pictures to my friends and listening to their comments their stories.
The Rhythm Club was founded in 1920 on 132nd Street in Harlem. At that time, there were bars, nightclubs, and ballrooms all around the neighborhood. The Rhythm Club started as a private club for musicians, who would store their instruments and rehearse there. After hours musicians would meet to eat or play pool, and jam sessions would run late into the night. These “cutting contests,” in which musicians would trade improvised choruses of a tune, trying to impress their peers with their inventiveness and stamina, became legendary. New arrivals in New York would head straight to the Rhythm Club, because it also functioned as a “clearinghouse for employment,” according to jazz historian Scott DeVeaux. As the pianist and bandleader Count Basie put it, “A lot of guys used to bring their instruments with them . . . just in case somebody came by there looking for somebody to go out on a job.”
Over the decades the Rhythm Club changed location a number of times. I started to spend time there in the 1980s, and slowly the walls were covered with nearly 400 of my photos of club members and families and children from 33rd. (True Harlem residents always say “Thirty-third” — never “One hundred and thirty-third street,” as new arrivals and outsiders do.) The Rhythm Club was like a second home to me. For years I went there nearly every day, sometimes in the afternoon, sometimes at night, to see my friends and enjoy time with them. I wanted to make sure everyone was okay and to share a good laugh. I cherished that place. Friends would stop by and comment on the photos and the newspaper articles I’d pasted on the walls. Sometimes they told me that my camera took good pictures or said, “Looks just like me!”
Somebody always had a joke! Everyone enjoyed being together — at times in deep silence, and at other times amidst a lot of laughter. Always there was music from the CD player, or someone got up from the card table and played. Like Slim (Calvin Lockhart), who came every day in his convertible white Cadillac with one of his guitars. He used to play for many years with Irene Reid. The card games were serious, though. They played road or pinochle, and the games went on for hours.
Benny Roosevelt, the owner of the huge space where the Rhythm Club was located on 33rd, was forced to give it up when the taxes went too high. The Club moved to an apartment on the second floor of the building next door. The apartment had a kitchen where sometimes there was good cooking. I made it a point to make various good herbal teas to take care of their stomachs or their colds. I loved to do that — especially when they told me it worked. In the fridge there was always beer for a dollar, too.
The housemen Harry and Scribble took care of collecting the money. Emile Williams is the oldest surviving member from that time; he used to take care of the rent and the electric bills. Each card player would pay one dollar per hour and this money went to Emile to take care of the bills.
For many years the members had all been men. But by the time the Club moved to its last location, a storefront on 33rd downstairs from the apartment with the kitchen, the membership was dwindling: the musicians and their friends were getting old, and some had passed away. Those who were left decided to invite a couple of their female friends to join the Club so that the card games could continue.
In November 2006, the Rhythm Club was forced to vacate the storefront when the owner raised the rent very high. A lawyer helped Emile try to find a solution; they went to court several times in an attempt to save the place. But the greedy owner demanded so much money that the Club could not afford to stay. “The new Harlem” was taking over.
— Martine Barrat
Thank you to all the members and the friends of the club, to Brent Edwards for his help with the subtitles and text, and to the lawyer Mitchell Heaney.