By Ashleigh Baker
Nestled on the corner of 121st Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard sits Paris Blues, a bar and live jazz performance club that encompasses a bit of the South and what people refer to as “Old Harlem.”
The wood-paneled walls are decorated with posters of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington and iconic jazz bands from the ’20s. The other walls are lined with framed posters of the bar owner and newspaper articles about the club. The dim lighting and a small stage create a cozy atmosphere for all visitors, and despite its small size, the club has survived more than 40 years. Despite being rooted in the history of the neighborhood, Paris Blues has welcomed the gentrification of Harlem in recent years and the expensive condos and slick bars and restaurants that came with it.
With a thick Alabama accent, brown three-piece suit and a hat with a feather on the side, Paris Blues’ owner, Samuel Hargress acknowledged that his love of Paris and blues influenced his naming choice. “Everyone can identify with jazz, most of the people that come here are looking to hear jazz music and I’m happy to have that for them,” he said.
According to Hargress, “Gentrification isn’t good or bad, it just happens and you cannot stop it.”
Tourists travel from all over the world and find themselves at Paris Blues in search of the “Old Harlem,” which has become a rarity in recent years. The ability to detach itself from the changing surroundings is what sets Paris Blues apart from other neighborhood clubs. The jazz performances are impeccable; the majority of performers have no record deals but a passion that resonates through their performances.
On a typical night, the bar is filled with patrons that come to listen to a live jazz band. The crowd is composed of a few foreigners and people from the surrounding neighborhood. Most visitors are relatively recent arrivals to the neighborhood. The crowd runs in age from 21-year-olds to those who are graying.
On a recent night, the Harlem Jazz Machine performed. “I’ve been playing the piano for almost 30 years,” said Alex Marcelo. “I learned to play right here in Harlem, at the Harlem School of the Arts. I really like playing at Paris Blues, it’s one of the last few original Harlem jazz clubs left, and it has a lot of uniqueness.”
Hargress takes pride in the new visitors the gentrification of Harlem is bringing, enjoying the diversity they bring to his bar. He marvels at “educated young people” who have recently moved to the neighborhood. Paris Blues first opened in 1969 and is known as one of the very few bars in Harlem still open after so many years.
When Paris Blues first opened the drug epidemic was at its peak and crime was rampant. “Even with the crime going on, they never bothered me — they would say ‘Hey, that’s Sam’s place’ and leave me alone.”
A small three-story building surrounded by million-dollar glass-walled condos and pricey restaurants, Paris Blues sticks out like a sore thumb. Its appearance, however, is part of its charm. The club offers visitors the opportunity to travel back in time to the Harlem of the late ’60s.