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Jazz Lives Here: Bill's Place Brings The Swing Back To Swing Street

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At Bill's Place it is more jam session, than concert and it's as close as you can get to the music without being on the bandstand. NY1's Stephanie Simon filed the following report.

Lot's of venues say "every seat's a great seat,” but how many places can say where just about every seat is a front row seat.

"Yes, it is a very intimate space,” said the owner of Bill’s Place and a saxophonist, Bill Saxton. “It's a narrow brownstone, only 12 feet wide, but we just made the space work.”

On Friday's nights, Bill's Place on 133rd Street is cramped but cozy, from the close quarters to the neighborhood vibe people here say there is one thing that really makes Bill's Place special.

“It's Bill's Place,” said Dion Parson, a drummer at Bill’s. “If you know Bill, this has been one of his dreams, and it has his energy within it.”

Bill Saxton was born and raised in Harlem and has been a staple on the music scene practically ever since.

He has had a long career playing with the greats and traveling around the world. But being here, owning his own jazz spot in Harlem, is a dream come true.

“It's an idea I have had all my life to start my own club,” said Saxton. “Keep the music in the community. Ran, owned, and operated, by musicians for musicians.”

So just one year ago he and his and his wife Theda Palmer Saxton opened Bill's place. They thought it was a great idea, and it was great idea. Just not a new one, not even close

“I found out later, during prohibition during 1927, this block was called ÎSwing Street’ and it had a history long before I started,” said Saxton. “I found out many great speakeasies during prohibition were on 133rd Street at least seven or eight clubs.”

After reading this article Saxton found out not only was 133rd ÎSwing Street,” his very address was the center of the swing scene.

“I said, Îoh wow,’” said Saxton. “My address is in the article site of one of speakeasies in 1927. A lady named Tilly Fritz came to NY, she was a cook in Philadelphia and she opened a kitchen in the front part of the club. People came to get these famous sandwiches that she made, a ham and egg crackelberry. She got on the map making this sandwich. And also she started the recipe for chicken and waffles, that was her idea.”

But, ironically, for this once swinging speakeasy, you cannot get alcohol here today. It's BYOB. Still people pack the place to see Bill play with his regular Friday night line up, and an array of special guests.

“John Hicks before he died played here, along with Curtis Lundy, and Bobby Watson,” said Saxton. “There's no telling who will walk through this door.”

And since discovering the ancestry of his jazz club, Saxton began incorporating a little history into the performances.

So this was ÎSwing Street’ 80 years ago and it is still swinging today. And Saxton's right, you never know who's going to stop by. The night NYC visited, Eric Lewis, also know as Top Professor, made a cameo appearance.

“It's a welcome to addition to any neighborhood,” said Lewis, a pianist. “A spot like this which is very comfy, very warm, very intimate. And under these conditions a lot of jazz can be played.”

The crowd seemed to agree.

“Oh it is beautiful,” said a patron of Bill’s Place. “And we go to see one of the premier pianists, Eric Lewis, and how many times can you just walk into a speakeasy and find Eric Lewis.”

“It is very intimate it reminds me when I was 15, 16, 17 years old, living in Harlem,” said another patron. “We had this. And so Bill is bringing it back to the community and I'm so excited about it, really excited.”

It's hard to imagine Saxton without a saxophone in his hand, but despite his early love of music, it was an inauspicious start.

“It happened during the riots the Î64 riots in Harlem,” said Saxton. “Someone had a sax, and that's how I got my first sax. Someone who got it out of one of the pawn shop gave it to me.
It was during the riots they got everything out of there they broke the windows. So that's how I got a sax.”

Later his family moved to the East Village

“When we moved downtown I met a student of Jackie McClain's, a young man named Nelson Samenyego, who took me to a music store and got me a case for it because I used to carry it around in a pillow case,” explained Saxton. “And so we got a case for it but I didn't have the whole saxophone I had the body but I didn't have the neck so I got a neck and I started to play.”

Bill went on to study in Boston at the New England Conservatory, but some of his biggest influences were local.

“Growing up in Harlem, Clark Terry used to play every Monday and he wanted to make a Harlem youth band and that's what he did with his own money,” said Saxton. “We didn't have a baritone sax player, so he bought a sax and taught it so we could have sax section. I thought it was so wonderful; he had a great impact on my life. I later joined his band and traveled the world with him and recorded with him.”

Terry also inspired Saxton to found his own Harlem youth band.

“And they come here and they practice,” said Saxton. “We're tutoring on this music.”

Not just the fundamentals but performance techniques as well.

“Young people in school gotta learn how to make a presentation,” said Saxton. “How to feel the room out, to know where you are and what happens next.”

Saxton definitely knows how to read the room, but with such a good view I wondered if it was uncomfortably close for the musicians

“It's a good thing,” said Parson. “And it really shows the reality of the music. It's very real, and the musicians on stage are open to that. It presents us in our best light I think.”

So pull up a chair, there is not a bad seat in the house


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