The strain of Charlie Parker’s classic Just Friends comes from a lone saxophone player busking outside the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
Aficionados flock here to listen to the Savory Collection, a treasure chest of pre-Second World War radio music recorded by US Navy audio engineer William Savory, which includes rare, live nightclub performances from the greats of the era. The recordings were discovered in 2010 and the news made headlines the world over.
However, if you’re a jazz rookie, or simply in the mood for a fun diversion, a Jazz Hands workshop here gives a wonderful introduction to the genre’s music and dance.
Jazz, along with gospel, soul food, civil rights history and a certain exhibition basketball team – the Harlem Globetrotters – are just a few of the things synonymous with this vibrant neighbourhood.
Harlem has travelled a long way since its beginnings as a replica Dutch community at the start of the 20th Century, to the hub of black rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s, and to the crime and poverty that made it a no-go area in the 1970s and 1980s.
Vibrant: Kate Wickers gives tips on the best things to see and do in Harlem, from jazz clubs to soul food restaurants (pictured)
Its heart is 125th Street, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, and it has never looked more inviting.
As hotels in Harlem are few and far between, stay at Moxy NYC Chelsea in Midtown, ten minutes away on the subway, or hop off a couple of stops earlier at Central Park, from where you can stroll to Harlem through Manhattan’s largest green space. Nearby is Museum Mile, home to the Guggenheim, Museum of the City of New York and Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Explore Harlem by day and you’ll find a story on every street corner, but if you want to discover where Duke Ellington lived or where the civil rights activist Malcolm X was assassinated, it’s essential to have an expert in tow.
Harlem Heritage Tours organise group and bespoke excursions specialising in gospel and civil rights history, and all guides are passionate about the neighbourhood in which they were born and raised.
To sample the food of the many communities that have made Harlem home over the years, book through the Eat With website, which might take you on a culinary journey through the Ivory Coast for grilled lamb and plantain, or on to Somalia for sambusa (samosa), and Ghana for egusi – a yam-based soup thickened by ground melon seeds.
After dark, catch a show at the famous Apollo Theatre, a vaudeville club dating from 1934 and fondly referred to as ‘the soul of American culture’.
Each Wednesday, amateurs take to the stage hoping to be discovered, just as Ella Fitzgerald and James Brown were. For stories on legends such as Stevie Wonder, take a tour with Billy ‘Mr Apollo’ Mitchell, its historian.
He’s seen Ray Charles playing poker in the wings, was there when The Jacksons first performed at Amateur Night, and was befriended by Marvin Gaye and he has the inside gen on them all.
‘Explore Harlem by day and you’ll find a story on every street corner,’ says Kate. Above is a street food stall
Rousing gospel choirs perform during Sunday services in Harlem, Kate reveals. Above is a gospel parade in the neighbourhood
After dark, catch a show at the famous Apollo Theatre, a vaudeville club dating from 1934 and fondly referred to as ‘the soul of American culture’
Once the curtain goes down at the Apollo, jazz clubs, such as Minton’s Playhouse, open their doors – Minton’s has been going strong since its 1930s and 1940s heyday when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie used to drop by to jam.
Billie Holliday began her career as a teenager at Bill’s Place, which embodies the speakeasy atmosphere of the prohibition era and is an intimate basement venue that continues to roar 1920s-style on a Friday and Saturday. While Dizzy’s offers a more sophisticated vibe, with views over Central Park and world-class musicians performing nightly. Tony Bennett is a regular.
Peaceful Sunday mornings are the best time to explore Harlem without a guide. Take in the street art by Franco Gaskin on 125th, or for panoramic views of the district walk to the top of The Acropolis in the Marcus Garvey Park (named for the formidable black activist), then stroll the handsome residential blocks of Sugar Hill, reflective of the ‘sweet life’ that wealthy African Americans enjoyed here in the 1920s. Among these elite addresses, 555 Edgecombe Avenue is where jazz great Count Basie once lived.
Kate recommends staying at Moxy NYC Chelsea in Midtown (above), ten minutes away on the subway, as ‘hotels in Harlem are few and far between’
On Sundays, follow the locals to stylish Melba’s (above) for a catfish sandwich or barbecued short rib
New York’s oldest African-American church, the Abyssinian Baptist, was established in 1808 by sea merchants. Arrive early if you want to catch the rousing gospel choir during Sunday services at 9am and 11am, then follow the locals to stylish Melba’s for a catfish sandwich or barbecued short rib, or to Sylvia’s, the oldest of Harlem’s soul food restaurants, founded by queen of soul food Sylvia Woods in 1962.
Cast an eye over the restaurant’s walls and you’ll see that their ‘down home’ fried chicken with waffles, yams, beetroot, and black-eyed peas have attracted the likes of Barack Obama, Beyoncé, and Nelson Mandela, and that’s why queues for this hearty, comforting food often stretch down the block.
Sundays are particularly busy, when brunch is served with a side-order of gospel singing, and, as they say in the South, after dining here you’re sure to be full as a tick.
‘Montreal in the house. Paris in the house. Windsor in the house, y’all,’ comes the call from the singer, who does regular rounds to chat to diners, and everyone cheers. A more inclusive, friendly atmosphere you’d be hard-pressed to find.