Every week, Marjorie Eliot welcomes the city into her Harlem living room
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The entire block can hear the sounds coming out of Marjorie Eliot's living room. It happens every Sunday, but no one seems to mind.
For the last seven years, the doyenne of jazz has opened the parlor of her Sugar Hill apartment for free 4 p.m. jazz sessions. In a living room dimly lit with yellow and blue mood lights, elite jazz performers like bassist Bob Cunningham and percussionist Al Drears, aspiring local musicians, and students from Julliard jam and riff.
On this particular Sunday, forty neighbors, regulars, and curious newcomers fill up the card-table chairs that are four rows deep in the living room and spill out into the hallway and kitchen. Eliot--all smiles and hospitality--wears braided bangs, the rest of her thick hair clipped back in a side ponytail. Her eyes light up when she greets audience members at the door.
Once the guests settle into their seats, Eliot starts the afternoon as she always does: by playing the upright ebony Yamaha piano by the wall.
It is a labor of love for the jazz veteran, who says she started her Sunday jazz salon to share the music that has been the center of her life.
Eliot, who only coyly admits to being "somewhere over fifty," started playing the piano at age five and cannot remember a time when she did not want to be an actress and singer. But it wasn't easy. Growing up as an only child in Philadelphia, Eliot lost her father when she was only ten years old. She was raised by a great-grandmother, herself widowed at twenty-four, who cooked for a very wealthy white family while she raised three generations. "But," Eliot says, "I still grew up with the notion that there was nothing that I could not do."
As she got older, Eliot realized that many professional entertainment opportunities were off-limits to blacks. But Eliot persisted with acting and singing. She moved into her uncle's apartment at 555 Edgecombe Ave. in Harlem, the same apartment where she lives now. Her uncle, who worked during the day as an elevator operator, was also a musician. He took Eliot to jazz clubs, where she eventually met her husband, the percussionist Drears. Eventually, she became a regular on the Greenwich Village jazz scene.
In 1992, her son Phillip died of a kidney ailment, at the age of twenty-eight. Eliot was devastated. She recalls throwing herself on the floor and crying. Music, however, provided her with spiritual sustenance. When she sat down at her Yamaha that Sunday, she played for hours. "Somewhere," she says, "you begin to get some healing."
Eliot soon left the professional jazz circuit. She didn't like where the scene was going, she says, and she wanted to create a more intimate atmosphere. "The club world will ask you, 'How many paying customers are you bringing through the door?' How can you do your best with someone looking over you like that?" Eventually, she founded her own company, Parlor Entertainment, to perform at concerts and plays. Seven years ago, the group began playing Sunday afternoon sets at Eliot's apartment.
Eliot pays her musicians out of her own pocket, because she does not like to ask anyone for money. ("I steal from my own piggy bank, " she says.) Luckily, her musicians are not in it for the money. "Playing here on Sundays has become a spiritual event for me, " says Cunningham, the bassist. "It's sort of like going to church."
"It's a dream come true to be playing with my wife, " says Drears, who used to play with Dizzy Gillespie's band. Eliot's son Rudel, an accomplished pianist and singer, also performs with the group.
Besides her work with Parlor Entertainment, Eliot hosts theater workshops for children and rehearses her own plays. For the last nine years, she has also coordinated a jazz concert every August in front of the Morris-Jumel Mansion. The concerts at the mansion, an old estate that at one time kept slaves, were organized "to honor our ancestors," she explains. "The slaves at the mansion did not go upstairs to the beautiful rooms ... or sit on the lawn with white people." Today, the summer concerts bring people of all races and ages onto the mansion's lawn, where they share the experience of jazz.
It's just a few minutes into the first set, and 555 Edgecombe Ave. is already grooving. Feet tap away at the ground. Heads bop back and forth. Young people, middle-aged adults, and senior citizens clap their hands to the beats. Whites, blacks, Asian Americans, and immigrants from all countries quietly sing along with their favorite songs.
For some, the parlor music is a new experience; for others, it's their weekly communion. Gertrude Rouzot is one of the regulars. She first heard about Eliot through word of mouth. "Now I am here almost every Sunday, " she says. "It's like a family."
"When I first heard about this, I was like, this can't be true," says Sheila Massey, a business analyst. "I get to just ring someone's bell and listen to live music. It's just great."
Between the two music sets, Eliot serves her guests punch and cookies. "It's a miracle to me that they come every Sunday because they don't have to," she says. "They choose to come."
She vividly remembers the Sunday after September 11, when it seemed the whole city chose to come. The apartment was packed: "People were coming looking for something." Eliot thought about how to celebrate the lives of the people who had died in the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. "I didn't want to talk, so I decided to express my love for these people who were lost through my art." Instead of the usual animated jazz program, Eliot and the other musicians played old Negro spirituals and haunting songs by Duke Ellington. "We needed that," Eliot says.
It was jazz, slow and sweet. And it was healing, on a sad Sunday afternoon.