Jazz Party’s A Bust In Harlem


Sunday, October 05, 1997

HERE WAS THE PITCH: The new nightclub would jump from the brightest and best history of Harlem. Jazz would swing again on 135th St. Money would be made.

Lloyd Williams was courting, and Dean Schomburg was ready to dance.

“Lloyd said, ‘We need this as a linchpin to bring back the Harlem of old when people wanted to come uptown,’ ” recalled Schomburg. “At the end of the meeting, Lloyd said, ‘I want somebody who looks like us’ meaning black folks ‘to be in control of this project.’ “

Great idea. Perfect spot. The club would be in the heart of Strivers Center, a handsomely restored length of 135th St. that was developed with city funds by a group that includes Williams, head of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and the Harlem Week festival.

“What a travesty it turned out to be,” Schomburg said.

He and his partner fell in love with the idea of the club, and with the money they would make from it. So they put their money on the table.

“The whole premise was that we’re going to bring back the memories, the nostalgia, the excitement of when the clubs were here all the glory days of Harlem,” said Schomburg.

As it happens, the Schomburg name is one of Harlem’s glories.

Two minutes from Strivers Center, you can find the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the United States’ premier library for scholarly research into African-American history. The core of the collection are the books, newspapers and manuscripts assembled at the turn of the century by Puerto Rican-born black scholar Arturo Schomburg, who had been told as a fifth-grade school boy that “the Negro had no history.”

While working as a mail clerk at Bankers Trust, Arturo Schomburg wrote to book dealers around the world and bought more than 10,000 volumes of black history. The New York Public Library purchased them in 1926.

Dean Schomburg is the grandson of Arturo Schomburg. His tale of being done wrong has the flavor of historical sacrilege as if a grandson of Babe Ruth reported that he had been burnt in dealing with George Steinbrenner.

For the nightclub venture, Schomburg hooked up with an old friend, Alvin (Buster) Reid, owner of the Lenox Lounge. “We asked Lloyd and his people about an architect,” Schomburg said, “and they recommended their own architect. He had worked on the renovations of the buildings, so it made sense to have someone who knew the property do the drawings for the club.

“Where I fell down, I didn’t hire legal counsel at the outset.”

The architect drew up schematics for the renovations that would be needed on three storefronts, 229, 231and 235 W. 135th St. “We paid him $19,342,” Schomburg said, “and we were putting together our business plan. I had sent my financial statements in.

“The next thing we know, the architect has given a set of our drawings to the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. And we discover that our concept and the drawings we paid for are being shopped around to other people to run the club.”

Schomburg and his partner heard through the grapevine that Williams had taken their drawings to Tiny Archibald, the old basketball star, and Max Roach, the jazz drummer and winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant.

“Yes,” said Roach on Friday, “there was group from the Harlem Chamber, they were supposed to open a facility on 135th St. near St. Nick. They wanted me involved. They brought me these plans. But then those other gentlemen came to see me” Schomburg and his partner, Reid “and they had the very same plans, as far as I could tell.

“I knew both parties, so I got out of that deal right away.”

Meanwhile, Schomburg and Reid were told by an aide to Williams that they were out of contention for the nightclub lease.

When they wrote to everyone in Harlem complaining, they received a letter from the Harlem Chamber of Commerce’s secretary, saying that they might be able to work together if Schomburg and Reid apologized for complaining.

“Architectural work we bought and paid for was ripped off,” Schomburg said, “so we had nothing to apologize for.”

Asked about this on Friday, Williams said, “I have no comment about this,” before hanging up the phone.

Dean Schomburg joins a list of those who feel scorched in their dealings with Lloyd Williams, whose organizations have assembled a small real estate empire in Harlem with $10 million in low-interest loans from the city and private banks. State auditors say that money for counseling of emotionally disturbed children was diverted into a Williams property to pay for renovations. And the city is investigating how it came to pay double market rates for space it is renting in the same property.

Williams says he has done no wrong and that he holds just small interests in the real estate. Clearly, he deserves credit for putting 48 new apartments on 135th St., and for his vision of Strivers Center, where he has pushed development based not on megachains or megabureaucracy, but on local businesses and local pride.