Saxophonist/composer Bill Saxton, owner of the four-story brownstone that houses his hip little jazz spot Bill’s Place (148 W. 133rd St.) will now be open every Saturday with sets at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., featuring Bill Saxton and the Harlem All-Star Bebop Band.
“Since opening in 2005, we have opened on Fridays, but now we will be open for the weekend, both Friday and Saturday,” says Saxton. “I plan to have special guest artists in the near future.”
The Friday sets carried over from his 11-year reign at the once-famous St. Nick’s Pub. He felt the Friday following that he had built over a decade would be attracted to his new place. Some were, but he also gained many new customers.
He attributes this fact to Harlem’s continued gentrification. “It has really helped my business tremendously; my audience is about 95 percent whites and foreigners,” says Saxton.
Ironically, whites–including many celebrities like Walter Winchell, Tallulah Bankhead and Mae West–flocked to Saxton’s historical location from 1928 to the mid 1930s, when the block was coined the “original swing street” by Billie Holiday.
His place was then called Tillie’s Rib Shack and was known for its chicken and waffles, and ham and eggs that, Saxton noted, were called “poker crackle berry.” This was Prohibition and speakeasies like Tillie’s, where the music and fun lasted until the wee hours of the morning, were the order of the day.
While Tillie Fripp from Philadelphia served her delicious food, a young singer named Billie Holiday sang in the main room with house pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith. Fripp’s food became so popular she had to move to a larger location on Lenox Avenue and Covan’s took over the spot.
Edith’s Clam House was at 146, and a few doors up was Club Mexico at 154, which was Duke Ellington’s favorite hangout. The tree-lined block, also called “jungle alley” by the white folks, didn’t stop whites from hitting 133rd Street (between Lenox and Seventh avenues) to mix with Blacks, which wasn’t allowed at the Cotton Club or Connie’s Inn.
Stride pianists like Fats Waller, Bud Powell and James P. Johnson were all house pianists along the popular block. When Randy Weston, a pianist and composer who credits Duke Ellington as one of his influences, played at Bill’s Place, he added a present-day link to the brownstone’s historical past, a poetic instance of how at Saxton’s spot, great music and Black culture is still the main order of the day.
On the tiny bandstand sits a drum set with a little history of its own, a drum set donated by the drummer Roy Haynes as a gift to Saxton when he opened Bill’s Place.
Bill’s Place: a step into Harlem’s historical past where jazz is interpreted in the present and beyond. Admission is $20, BYOB (that’s old school).
The Mississippi born Milton “Milt” John Hinton, who earned a reputation as the “dean of jazz bass players” in setting a high bar for generations after his, including the likes of Rufus Reid and Ron Carter, will be celebrated on March 3, at St. Peter’s Church (619 Lexington Ave. at 54th Street).
“Celebrating Milt Hinton,” bassist, educator, photographer and NEA Jazz Master (1993), will begin at 3 p.m. with the documentary “Keeping Time: The Life, Music and Photographs of Milt Hinton,” followed by a panel discussion with writer Bill Crow, historian/writer Dan Morgenstern, musicians Rufus Reid and Joe Wilder, moderated by David G. Berger.
Photographs by Hinton from the Milton J. Hinton Photograph Collection will be on display in the Living Room Gallery now through March 3.
Scheduled for 5 p.m. is Jazz Vespers with Ben Williams. “The Keeping Time Concert” at 7:30 p.m. will feature the music of Hinton and the many ensembles with which he performed, hosted by vocalist Catherine Russell. This segment of the evening will include the Rufus Reid organized ensemble the Judge Meets the Section, a bass quintet of Milt Hinton Scholarship winners comprising Peter Dominguez, Fred Hunter, Mimi Jones (aka Miriam Sullivan), Douglas Weiss and Sue Williams, and featuring bass soloist Elias Bailey.
Other ensembles will include Jay Leonhart; the Purchase Jazz Orchestra conducted by Todd Coolman with Frank Wess, Rufus Reid, and Catherine Russell; Gerald Clayton; Rodney Green; Reid; and special guest Ron Carter. The grand finale will be a large brass choir (at least 20 brassists) led by Reid. During his long stint with the Cab Calloway Big Band (1936-1951), he developed a technique known as “slapping,” using his open hand to hit the bass for various sounds. That band featured Chu Berry, Dizzy Gillespie, Cozy Cole and Ben Webster, among others.
The straight-ahead jazz musician was also a popular studio musician who played on many R&B hits, including the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” and Neil Sedaka pop tunes written by songwriters who worked feverishly in the Brill Building (Tin Pan Alley).
In watching the documentary “A Great Day in Harlem,” one will notice Hinton was the one taking all the pictures. The film is a companion of the photo shoot of 57 jazz musicians taken in Harlem at 17 East 126th St. on Aug. 12, 1958, and appeared in the November issue of Esquire magazine.
At the end of the day, it was Hinton who took all the great shots that would later become a part of the documentary. He never started out as a photographer; he was just interested in taking photos of his friends and memorable occasions. Hinton died on Dec. 19, 2000 at age 90.
The suggested ticket donation for “Celebrating Milt Hinton” is $25. Students $15 with ID.