Hearing Sonny’s Blues at Showman’s in 2016
By S. M. |
On a late night in May, I was finally able to visit Showman’s Jazz Club on West 125th Street in Harlem. If you’re not paying attention, you could almost pass right by the place. Although it does have a long awning above the door, it’s just not very flashy at all. Being used to huge restaurants and clubs, I entered boldly, walked straight to the front, and only then realized that I had walked the entire length of the cozy little club. Right from the entrance, you can tell there are still a lot of the original 1942 fixtures. To the right is a long old-fashioned bar, with an old-fashioned cash register and all. To the left are mirrors on the walls and tables. In the back, facing the bar and tables, is a small stage with just enough room for a three-piece band. There is a Hammond B-3 organ on the stage, which I was told was an original piece in the bar, one of only two in all of Harlem. The bartenders were swift and very friendly, and the crowd was a mixture of young and old and all different ethnicities. All of the walls were adorned with black and white photos of Black American artists that had passed through there. In the center of the wall, there is a large painting of a few black artists, and more black and white photos were around it.
After reading “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin, I found it easy to imagine what the atmosphere was like back in those days while sitting in Showman’s: the familiarity among the crowd and how the bands and singers must have related to the audience; the smiling bartenders, the sounds of the old fashioned cash register as patrons paid for their drinks, all of these things melded together creating a city version of the down-home, backwoods juke joints. “Sonny’s Blues” tells the story of a young Black musician in search of something more in 1950s America. This is a narrative that is quite familiar to me, and familiar to a lot of Black Americans. We all have a family member or two, born and raised either in the south or a big city like New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, who from the 1920s until the 1980s or so, were in search of some type of improvement. They were all looking for more, but were unsure where to look. This often led them down a path of destruction. Sonny was trying to fill a void in his soul and music could only fill half of it, and he thought drugs could fulfill the other half. While men are the so-called alpha gender, that means nothing to the black man. Oppression exists in many forms. Perhaps that is what Sonny was fighting internally. His semi-estranged brother could not understand him, he could not understand the fight, the emptiness or the pain, until he listened to Sonny play at the club one night. Sonny and his other band members were playing their hearts out, and that was the only time his brother could actually see, hear, and feel him. That is the effect that jazz and blues singers have on people. Sometimes it’s their own relatives, as in “Sonny’s Blues,: other times its pure strangers, as was my own experience at Showman’s.
I did not have a personal connection to Showman’s until the night I visited. My father lives in Ohio but he was in New York for the weekend, doing the responsible son thing, and handling business for my grandmother who has lived in Harlem for almost twenty-five years. I usually meet up with my Dad and have dinner or drinks on these types of weekends, and this time I suggested he come with me to Showman’s. My father is very friendly and outgoing, possibly the result of his astrological sign, Cancer, and the many years he spent traveling in the military. Since Showman’s is so small, it fills up quick. There was an older couple celebrating the lady’s birthday, and they had two empty seats at their table, so we joined them. My father and I sipped our drinks, laughed with the couple and were well entertained by Mr. Ray Schinnery, a blues singer from New York. Mr. Schinnery, accompanied by a drummer and an organist, played a few songs by well-known artists like Al Green, and many of his own songs. His music was comical and relatable, with the typical southern blues drawl, and lyrics about women sprinkling things in his food or not coming home because they could not “handle the meat on the bone.”
Originally, Showman’s was right next door to the Apollo Theater, which explains why so many black musicians ended up hanging out there. Greats like Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn, and Pearl Bailey all had the pleasure of sharing pieces of their soul from the tiny stage at Showman’s. There are photos of these musicians around the club, as well as Earth Kitt, Lionel Hampton, and Lena Horne, who also passed through Showman’s doors. The history of Showman’s is hard to explain because it is not the past. Showman’s is living history. From the original Hammond B-3 Organ, to the old fashioned bar, to the blues, jazz, and rhythm & blues pioneers who left their marks on the place, Old Harlem is still alive and well within the four walls of Showman’s.