It was a sweltering midsummer afternoon in Harlem and the air inside the dimly-lit apartment was thick as a steaming stew. Forty of us were crammed onto an assortment of fold-up chairs which spilled out from the living room into the adjoining kitchen and hallway. Several latecomers stood by the front door, craning their necks and wishing they’d arrived earlier. Foreheads glistened, chests heaved, newspapers and maps became furious makeshift fans. Beside the wide-open window, a lace curtain barely sighed.
At the piano was a balletic figure in a floaty white dress whose melancholy chords seemed to drift up from the keyboard and linger in the air, hanging over us like moths suspended in aspic. The figure was Marjorie Eliot – actress, playwright, musician and mother – and this was her home. She swayed gently back and forth, and so did we.
Initially motivated by grief following the death of her son Philip in 1992, Marjorie Eliot has been holding free Sunday afternoon concerts in her Harlem apartment for the past two decades, rain or shine. The Washington Heights apartment building at 555 Edgecombe Avenue is a well-known landmark; during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s it was home, at various points, to Count Basie, Paul Robeson and Duke Ellington. Today it’s just as well known for Marjorie’s ‘Parlor Jazz’ as for its famous past residents. Every Sunday afternoon a steady trickle of in-the-know tourists take the elevator up to no. 3F to join a handful of locals and jazz aficionados for a two-set show in her modest living room, just like the original salon jazz sessions of the Renaissance.
I’d been wanting to attend one of these intimate weekend concerts for many years, but despite several visits to the city I’d never managed to get my timings right. Sunday always seemed to be the day I’d be flying home or catching up with New Yorker friends who worked during the week. But this time I was more organised and took my seat – one of the last few – in the hallway directly behind the piano.
The multi-talented vocalist with the deep velvet voice was Rudel Drears, another of Marjorie’s sons, who now replaced his mother at the piano. Other musicians, including bassist Bob Cunningham – a veteran of past recordings with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie – emerged from a rear bedroom and worked their way through a diverse set. Through the familiar post-bop refrain of Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage to a dreamy version of Willy Wonka’s theme song Pure Imagination, I sat with my eyes closed, lost in an intoxicating swirl of music, breath-snatching humidity and a joyous feeling of inclusivity so rarely found in a city that’s not your own.
At the end of the set, Marjorie stood before us to say thank-you, her voice dripping with emotion. Today would have been her son’s birthday, and we’d helped to honour him – not just today, but for more than 20 years of Sundays. The small gathering nodded and clapped, and said “Amen”. Visibly moved, those nearest patted her arm as they rose to leave.
I walked towards the door, feeling the urge to say something but desperately not wanting to sound trite. In the end my self-consciousness disappeared as I confided to Marjorie this had been the most special thing I’d experienced in all my visits to New York.
“Oh my darling!” she said, throwing her arms around me. “What a beautiful thing to say. Please don’t wait so long until you come back. We would love to see you again!”
Stunned by her generosity and spirit, I assured her I would not.