Saturday, December 19, 2009

February 26th, 2010

My uncle left the Navy for New York City around the time I was born. He spent his first summer there with a shipmate who lived in Harlem before settling in with my parents in Brooklyn a few months later.  I've literally been close to the man my whole life.  When I reached my teens he would take me back Uptown every so often.  Especially in the summers, when he would pitch in here and there to help Greg, who would be busy running the popular Entertainers Basketball Classic tournament at Rucker Park.

In some ways, Harlem has represented a personal right of passage, a marker that moved forward with me in age and maturation.  When I went with my uncle I was caught up in the blur of hustle and flash of the personalities that surrounded the EBC and the barbershops, brownstones, and fried fish joints they frequented.  When I got my first job in midtown Manhattan after college, I would be in Harlem for social events organized by local associations like the New York Urban League, of which I was a member. When most of my friends from out of state would come to the city, we'd go out to some hipster spot in lower Manhattan or midtown and would usually end the night crashing somewhere in Harlem - a friend, a relative, someone always had an apartment there. 

Now, in my late 20's, my life has slowed considerably and  my interests and concerns have changed accordingly, as has my relationship with Harlem.  I now spend most of my time there for work-related reasons and find time to soak in the local culture in between appointments and impromptu meetings.  Harlem has gone through its fair share of gentrification since I first visited, but still has a much stronger sense of community and collective culture than most other areas in Manhattan, which I'm told was a much more eclectic place 20 and 30 years ago.  And so, collectively, the hospitals, community centers, lounges, associations, art institutions have far more to offer than I ever realized.  The Schomberg Center I now visit on a bi-weekly basis (I like to keep tabs on their live events) is an institution my father, a strong believer in the importance of education, has been making donations to for years.  My mother's relationship with Uptown also represented some of her strongest convictions: religion and community. She attendended the Abyssian Baptist Church with friends in the city, and occasionally would join the congregation at Riverside Church, a church that, oddly enough, has some relevance to my current relationship with Harlem.

I've inherited my parents sense of purpose and community, but was always more drawn by music, arts, culture, and business than sermon or academia.  A couple of months ago, I met a woman who sat on the board of the Harlem Opera Theater.  She was also involved with a number of other arts and cultural initiatives and institutions, including the Harlem Arts Alliance, a group that holds monthly meetings at Riverside.  I came across her contact info last week and went to the Arts Alliance website to see what was going on locally.  I had just missed the last performance for the The Next Face of Jazz, a live performance series featuring three progressive jazz bassists - first, second, and third place winners of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition.  This was a big disspointment for me, a music lover who worked right in the neighborhood, had been working on two articles on progressive jazz, and spent ten years playing the same instrument the three young talents were competing with.  It was something I could relate to, appreciate for all that it was worth.  But the opportunity had passed me by.

When I called Mrs. Harlem Opera to ask if she new of any upcoming events worth attending, she reminded me to leave my calendar open for the night of February 26th.  The Harlem Opera would be performing a reanactment of "Queenie Pie," an Opera produced by Madae C.J. Walker, who was the inspiration for the opera.  Queenie was also the only opera Duke Ellington ever had a hand in.  Mrs. Harlem Opera's husband informed me that black opera was often part of a repetoire for musicians who had been pulled from jazz bands, rock groups, and especially church choirs.  I was unfamiliar with opera up until now, but had a defnite respect and appreciation for the musical institutions Mr. Opera said performers used as a bridge into the genre.  I always take an opportunity to learn something new, especialy when its grounded in the familiar.  So when Mrs. Opera asked me if I was coming I simply said "I'll be there."