Why has no one approached me about this place?! It’s borderline criminal that in all my years I had never walked into B.A.J. I had walked by this place last year when retracing my grade school days at St. Aloyisius on 132nd. Then Harlem for the Holidays had it listed as one of the many premiere spots for Christmas discounts. I remember saying to myself that I was going to get some cool jazz posters at almost half off. But I never did. Procrastination got the best of me. Today following my successful sojourn to La Perle Noir I figured a stop at B.A.J. was more than due. From the outside the place looks more like a jazz shop than anything…somewhere to get some cool jazz memorabilia. It had a very unassuming awning that read Big Apple Jazz with the “e” and one “z” highlighted in yellow hinting at the presence of EZ’s Woodshed inside.
The way it works is that this place is a true jazz shrine but at the same it’s a cafe/lunch/dinner spot where you can hear live jazz throughout the day for free! Seriously! They have a set that comes in at 2PM, another at 5:30PM, and then the last one at 8PM. When walking in, the place feels like the gift shop you would find at a jazz museum. There are posters, hard to find jazz CD’s and DVD’s, tiles with imprinted photos of different Harlem streets, jewel boxes, books, etc.
When you go further back into the place you find what I call the “jazz annex”. This is the backroom where beautiful jazz paintings flushed with vibrant colors adorn the walls. I cannot explain in words the emotions expressed by these portraits (part of an exhibit by Kazuo “Kaz” Ooka). I could almost hear the music coming off the paint. The back room also had little tables & stools set up much like a coffee shop. Towards the back wall was the setup for the musicians. By the time I got there the afternoon “shitft” had left. Gordon, the fellow who runs the place, told me stick around for the 5:30 trio. He passed me a menu and told me to have a bite until they arrive. And here is the beauty of it all: the menu was for Taste of Harlem Seafood. I let out a loud chuckle! Not out of ridicule or anything. It was more like…”well ain’t that the coolest marriage of businesses!”
For a minute I thought, “where the heck do they have the kitchen here!” There was no smell of fried fish. Those small questions aside, I went ahead and ordered the whiting sandwich with fries. Fish and chips I believe is the correct term! Much to my surprise I was hungry! While the food was being whipped up in the secret kitchen somewhere I decided to walk through the space and take a closer look at this jazz boutique. I absolutely fell in love with two posters…one of Dizzy and another of Monk. They had a small but interesting collection of books which I browsed as well. At that moment the next set of musicians began to make their way to back to set up.
Gordon, who had stepped out after I placed my food order, came back in with a bag of take out food. He was chatting with some other fellow about some jazz musicians. The guy knew his stuff. While he was pulling out the food I didn’t make the connection at first. As he started to bring out the different food items and set them up on disposable plates I had the “AHA!” moment. The guy had gone to pick up the order at Taste of Harlem himself! There was not secret kitchen! Not that it took anything away from the experience. The half an hour or so I spent there already told me this was a very casual place. As I was downing my fish sandwich & fries the trio had finished tuning their instruments and began to jam. There was no big audience; a friend of the drummer and another young fellow who was obviously a regular as he went ahead and adjusted the spot lights to set up the ambiance just right. And there I was as the three musicians covered some beautiful jazz numbers. I was in heaven! This is the way jazz should be enjoyed (at least in my mind). A fried fish sandwich and sweet melodies. I did feel bad that there weren’t more people there. My guess is that the later shifts get more people. When I finished my sandwich I pulled out my trusty laptop and setup the first paragraph of this review while I was still in inspiration mode. I was hitting the keys of the keyboard to beat of the drummer! Perfect harmony.
A place like EZ’s reminded me how inextricably woven both the histories of jazz and of Harlem are. And I’ll admit I am the furthest thing from a Harlem history buff. But I know that you cannot separate one from the other. By the same token I am no jazz expert. But I am a huge fan. I know that jazz is the foundation for most of what we consider modern music. I immediately remembered some of the places that I’ve neglected recently out of sheer laziness like Minton’s, St Nick’s Pub, Showman’s…some of the the last vestiges of classic Harlem music. Whereas at one point Harlem was teeming with jazz spots, now you only have a handful of places to get your fill. I am glad B.A.J. is there to get the job done.
I loved B.A.J. For me it was nothing short of amazing. Whereas other bigger music venues have their place in traditional night life activities, B.A.J. felt like a comfortable laid back place where you can kick back after work and get a little bit of happiness into you…and some fried fish if you’re hungry. Ya’ dig!
See also: Reef’s Review