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A Jazz Gem in Harlem

The 25-minute walk to 555 Edgecombe Ave took me to the southern edge of Washington Heights. At 3:30 PM, the winter afternoon sun hung low in the sky. I soon found myself in the lobby of a stately apartment building overlooking the Harlem River with no clue what apartment button to press. Never mind, two minutes later a trio of tourists bumbled into the lobby. They had better directions than I, and we climbed two stories to apartment 3F.


Inside the small apartment, a sizable crowd had gathered on the hodgepodge of folding chairs and couches in the living room and along the hallway. In the middle of the living room, a large Christmas tree decorated with neon blue lights saturated the room in aqua.  Beside the sizable tree stood an upright piano. The walls were covered in pamphlets of famous Jazz singers who made the pilgrimage to 3F to perform at the home of Marjorie Eliot.


For 30 years, Marjorie Eliot has lived in this apartment. Since 1991, rain or shine or family tragedy, Marjorie Eliot has held a Jazz performance in her home every Sunday at 4 PM. Indeed, much of her life seems like a string of tragedies. In 1992, her son Phil, at only 32 years old, died of kidney problems. His death, on a Sunday, was the impetus for beginning a concert series held in her home. In 2006, her son Michael, 47, died of meningitis. In 2011, Majorie Eliot made headlines when her son Shaun, who suffered from mental illness, went missing for 33 days, only to turn up in a mental hospital.


However, Marjorie Eliot has not let misfortune faze her. Eliot, a talented and award-winning jazz musician, playwright, and actress continues to perform weekly in her apartment.


On this cold Sunday, the diverse crowd of European and Asian tourists, hipsters, retirees, young professionals, and smattering of college students chatted quietly. The topic of conversation was how everyone had found out about this hidden gem in Harlem. “From a guide book to New York,” I overhear the tourist tell his neighbor. “From friends,” the woman next to me said. “I learned about it from the New York Magazine,” I admit to her, feeling less authentic.


A few minutes past four o’clock, the crowd, who by this time had filled up every empty seat, quieted down. Marjorie Eliot emerged from a back room dressed in an elegant white dress. Her ebony face, wild white hair and dark eyes gave her an enigmatic mystique as she seemed to glide down the hallway to the living room. She sat down at the piano and began a slow ballad, which quickened to a run as she rapidly descended and ascended the scales. After a few minutes of playing, she concluded the first of what would be many tunes of the evening with a thunderous applause.

As she began to play the next tune, out came her son Rudel Drears, also an accomplished musician and singer, in white pants and a white vest. He sang “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” an African American Spiritual song. The riff soon caught the crowd as the audience clapped and sang the refrain “Go, tell it on the mountain / Over the hills and everywhere / Go, tell it on the mountain / That Jesus Christ is born.” Christmas songs were the theme of the late afternoon concert. Songs included “Sound of Christmas,” “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and “The Christmas Song.”


After Marjorie and Rudel’s soulful tune, Saxophonist Sedric Shukroon joined in. Shukroon immediately fell into rhythm on his alto sax. Throughout the afternoon he switched between sax, flute, and clarinet and was masterful at all three.

Outside musicians, Shukroon tells me, flock to the apartment concerts because the atmosphere’s energy is positive, the audience always receptive and the gigs fun. “There’s no pressure here, we just have a great time.” The musicians enjoy playing freely, without thinking about their careers. Here they can improvise and experiment with new concepts. Shukroon has been a regular performer at Marjorie’s for a few years and is paid “well” for his time.


Halfway through the concert, an intermission allows people to stretch their legs. Marjorie serves apple juice and cookies. Another woman collects donations, which help pay for the artists; “No pressure,” she says, “donate what you can.”


After everyone quiets down, Marjorie, Rudel, and Sedric are joined by veteran bassist Bob Cunningham for another hour of Jazz. They move freely from free jazz improvisations to soloist breaks. Sedric throws in a few popular quotes as the tunes proceed. At some point the band sings happy birthday to one of Marjorie’s friends, and the crowd, at that point standing room only, joins in gleefully.


The uplifting and soulful concert ends with a huge round of applause. Marjorie kisses all who leave, many of whom, I learn from the conversations, have attended regularly for years.


Anyone who loves Jazz, an adventure, or just a free concert should make the trip to apartment 3F. But there is no need to hurry; Marjorie Eliot plans on hosting the concerts forever.


Marjorie Eliot’s parlor, 555 Edgecombe, apartment 3F, opens at 3:30 every Sunday.