Lenox Lounge 4

 

 

 

 

 

 New York: Yet another Manhattan landmark will bite the dust.

The famed Lenox Lounge, where Billie Holiday had her own table, greats like Dizzy Gillespie would play his trumpet among other jazz notables and author James Baldwin and a slew of other literary types took it all in. It was a blast from the past with the burgundy couches, the Art Deco light fixtures and familiar zebra-print wallpaper all conjured memories - and where, today, everybody still knows everybody there, will close its doors on Dec. 31.

Some regular customers are concerned that when the Lenox Lounge does reopen, it will not have the old flare that made it a fixture in Harlem, through many changes in music and through good times and bad.  The longtime owner of the Lenox Lounge said he simply could no longer afford the rent.

The popular nitery will begin the new year with a new owner: Richard Notar, a managing partner of the Nobu restaurant chain, known for its Japanese cuisine and celebrity clientele from downtown Manhattan to Cape Town. Alvin Reed, the longtime owner, said he could no longer afford the lease.

Speaking to the New York Times, one local resident said, “It shouldn’t be closing,” said Bronx resident, Verna Robertson, 67. Ms. Robertson recalled having her first cocktail there, a Tom Collins, decades ago. “It’s a landmark. We have so many memories here.”

Lenox Lounge opened in Harlem in 1942, and has operated through music chamges like rock n' roll, disco and rhythm-and-blues, and through the neighborhood’s ups and downs.

 “You used to have to call up and have someone put something in the chair to save you a seat, that’s how popular it was,” Charlie Harris also told the Times as he stood in the back of the bar by the Zebra Room, the dining area. He has been coming to the lounge for 30 years, drawn by the soul food and the music. “Jazz, blues, R&B, a cacophony of sound was here,” he said. “This was a home away from home.” Many echoed the same sentiment.

Lenox Lounge, just south of the intersection of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, is in a stretch of Harlem that has increasingly become a destination for people from New York and beyond, with restaurants, like Chez Lucienne, Corner Social and the popular Red Rooster, where Bill Clinton and Alicia Keys have dined. Property values have been rising due to the area’s new popularity.   “They want $20,000 a month,” Mr. Reed said. “I can’t afford that.”

Mr. Reed bought the lounge, one of the few extant Art Deco clubs in the country, in 1988. He restored its period touches, like the geometric floor tiles, and brought back live jazz. He also added a D.J. and R&B dance nights.

Despite the boom in its neighborhood, Lenox Lounge had been struggling of late. Mr. Reed, who owns the name of the lounge, would not say what he planned to do with it. Regulars wondered what the new owner would do with the space.

“Is he going to turn it into a sushi place?” asked Fred McFarlane, whose band has been playing there on Thursday nights for a few years. On the phone from Miami, Mr. Notar shared his vision. “I don’t want to change anything,” he said. “There might be a hole or patch here and there that I will fix. But I am not going to bring sushi up there. I want to continue what was 70, 80 years ago. I understand this is a gem.” He estimated that it would reopen in a few months.

Mr. Notar, who grew up in Jamaica, Queens, and lives in Manhattan, said he always had a sweet spot for Harlem.

Back in the late 1990s, he said, he tried to resurrect Minton’s Playhouse, a jazz haven on West 118th Street, known as the birthplace of bebop, but was unsuccessful. He said he envisioned re-establishing the Lenox Lounge as “an old watering hole,” with good food and music, a place that local musicians could call home and where big-name performers could stop in to play.

He would even like to keep the name. (He said he hoped that he and Mr. Reed “could work something out.”) “I know it’s a very tight-knit community and very proud of what’s happening up there,” Mr. Notar said. “And, I have to bring my A-game, or I’ll ride the A train!”

Recently, a little after 8 p.m., the stirring rhythms of the Temptations’ “Treat Her Like a Lady” filled the bar, thanks to Mr. McFarlane’s band, which crowded onto a little stage near the front window. A few diners sat quietly in the Zebra Room, with its black-and-white photos of jazz greats and a silent grand piano. Drinks flowed and the crowd, all having a good time, swelled: gray-haired men in suits and fedoras; young men in jeans and baseball caps watching the Knicks game on the flat-screen TV; women drinking wine in black dresses and pearls. It is Harlem reborn.

Calvin Davis, 62, a regular, hosted a receiving line from his usual spot along the mahogany bar. Men shook his hand; women planted kisses on his cheek  Mr. Davis, a retired social worker, said he had been coming to the lounge since he was 18. But, he said, he would not return after Dec. 31.

“It’s going to lose that charm, to make it feel like a neighborhood bar,” he predicted. “It will never be the same.”

But, for many, hope are high.

Theis article contains some excerpts from the NY Times article first published on December 7, 2012, written by Kia Gregory.