The Last Speakeasy on Swing Street

In "Dive" Leslie Pariseau explores the bars at far edge of popular nightlife. Up first: The under-the-radar Harlem jazz joint, Bill’s Place.

One winter Friday, on an otherwise quiet residential street in Central Harlem, the basement apartment of number 148 was lit up, humming with the energy of a cocktail party.

Two young women smoked beneath a red awning that read “Bill’s Place.” They buzzed in, handed over $20, and, in exchange, received a seat in the railroad-style apartment arranged around a stage crowded with instruments. Posters of jazz legends in plastic frames (Coltrane and Dizzy, circa 1957) and a kalimba presided over a drum kit. Plastic cups were dispatched for $1 each, and a bottle opener was passed around for anyone who toted along their own booze (no alcohol is sold on premise). A bottle of Beaujolais sat atop a spindled bench. A liter of something very purple and Australian was shared among several twenty-something women who were dressed for a night out. Three bespectacled Brooklynites palmed a pint of Wild Turkey. Above them hung a map of every jazz club in Harlem in 1932; it identified number 148 as “Tillie’s,” with the note: “Specializes in fried chicken—and it’s really good.”

At around 8:30 p.m., a bass player, a drummer and a pianist appeared. Proprietor and saxophonist Bill Saxton took the stage last. Wearing a fedora and a button-down crowded with bicycles, he said, quietly, “Welcome to Bill’s Place,” and swirled into an opening number, Kenny Barron’s “Voyage.” His band followed like a caravan.

Every Friday and Saturday evening, Saxton and his crew carry on the tradition of Swing Street, a block-long corridor of W. 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenue where speakeasies and jazz once reigned supreme, right up through the repeal of Prohibition. That same 1932 map states that the locations of speakeasies had been omitted, but notes, “since there are about 500 of them, you won’t have much trouble.”

In 1928, just as Tillie Fripp started cooking what became Harlem’s most beloved fried chicken and waffles at number 148, Swing Street was just being born. So densely lined with speakeasies, its residents would leave notes on their doors to the effect of “this is not a speakeasy” to avoid unwanted company in the middle of the night. The corridor’s development was fueled by a curious white downtown crowd and Harlem’s own residents, including black jazz musicians who were permitted to perform at nearby white-only venues like The Cotton Club and Lenox Lounge, but were not allowed to sit and have a drink or socialize following their sets. On Swing Street, a black, white and, at some venues, gay crowd, could intermingle without comment.

At 148—by then known as “Tillie’s”—Fripp regularly included Fats Waller in her jazz lineup alongside her famed food. Willie “the Lion” Smith later helped forge stride-style piano at this address. Eventually, it became Monette’s Supper Club, where producer John Hammond is rumored to have discovered 17-year-old Billie Holiday in 1932. Across the street was Edith’s Clam House, a gay-friendly venue famed for Gladys Bentley’s provocative impersonation set; and, further down, there was Mexico’s, reportedly Duke Ellington’s favorite basement haunt.

Today, Swing Street no longer exists. All but blotted out following repeal and a race riot in 1935, the block’s former history has been torn down and filled in with quiet residential buildings, unremarkable stoops and plain brick facades. Though something of a modern speakeasy, Bill’s Place sticks out on this common block like a peacock, its red awning and curly script an exclamation point on an otherwise drab thoroughfare.

Friday Night at Bill's Place

“When we found out what we were sitting on, we couldn’t believe it,” said Saxton to the crowd of 20 or so that had gathered that night. Twelve years ago, he and his wife bought the building and opened Bill’s Place, not realizing they were literally on top of the history they sought to preserve. A couple of years in, a neighbor taped a newspaper clipping to their door that detailed the block’s history. Saxton has been retelling that story ever since.

Tenor saxophone angled to the sky, Saxton played straight through an hour-long set, jumping from the Sarah Vaughan standard “If You Could See Me Now” to “There Is No Greater Love,” made famous by Holiday. The band improvised along in time. Santi di Briano plied his gumby fingers along the thrumming bass at an impossible pace; Russell Carter grinned behind the drum kit, which was bequeathed to Saxton by the legendary Roy Haynes; and Marcus Persiani sat ramrod straight, fingers whistling back and forth across the piano keys. Every so often, Saxton sat down to let his men solo, shuffling through sheet music and mopping his brow with a paper towel.

For an hour, everyone stopped talking and listened while sipping their preferred poison from plastic cups. Occasionally, it seemed everyone—band included—had their eyes closed, feet softly tapping against the old brownstone floorboards. The room took on the atmosphere of a Sunday congregation. A departure from the raucous days of Swing Street, when police raids were common and people drank bathtub gin from coffee cups, the scene was reverent. Less a relic than a nod to the ground on which it stands, Bill’s Place is a new thread in the fabric of Harlem’s culture. A speakeasy apart from cliché facsimile; a sanctuary of tradition freed from history’s burdensome mantle.

When the set was finished, Saxton introduced the band, pushed his CDs (“free, but the autograph is $15”) and held up his wife Dr. Theda Palmer’s book on the history of the neighborhood. The band trickled off to the front parlor to rest up for the next set. A couple of German ladies wanted a selfie with Saxton. As did a couple of Frenchmen. He obliged, shook hands and then departed the stage.


Tip: Bill’s Place is reservation only. Make a booking on the website in advance. (There are two sets each Friday and Saturday night.) Bring cash for the cover charge at the door. Take the 2 train to the 135th Street stop. Pop into Lenox Liquor on Malcolm X Boulevard for a pint of something strong. Walk west on 133rd. Find the red awning marked Bill’s Place and buzz yourself in. Bill’s Place | 148 W. 133rd Street | 212-281-0777

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