Open the first door and through the looking glass you see an inner sanctum of soul, long bar stretching, relaxed folk sitting and standing, the bar astriding about 75% of the tiny club’s length.
Then, when you enter through the second door, time shifts; a sense of pure comfort descends, washing the blues away. Over the bar photos of a pantheon glow: Sarah Vaughan, comedian Timmy Rogers, Lionel Hampton, Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, Duke Ellington. Mirrors strategically placed throughout the club give the illusion of a larger size.
I defy you to find a better deal in NYC for jazz lovers. No cover charge, a two drink minimum per show with quality liquor and beer at reasonable prices, blues and jazz by musicians with great chops and stage presence, the down-home courtesy of permanent manager Mona Lopez and barmaid “Lil” Pierce, plus a complimentary bowl of rice and beans (or macaroni and cheese), chicken, ribs and salad?!
Showmans was a hangout spot for Apollo entertainers and performers 60+ years ago. Back then it was next door to the famed theater and was “a segregated place, with sawdust on the floor,” says current Showmans owner Al Howard. A fire in 1985 prompted a move to 8th Avenue between 124th and 125th streets. Howard’s family had bought the club in 1978; he took over operations in 1985 after retiring from a decorated career on the NYC police force. The Harlem USA development forced a move to the current location in 1999.
The club is now much smaller than its previous incarnations, but the close-knit feel for which it was known remains. Rev. Robert Royal, pastor of Community Outreach at Harlem’s Memorial Baptist Church, has been going to Showmans 2-3 times a week since the early ‘60s. “They’ve always had diverse artistic talent - R&B, blues and jazz - and today it represents the most intimate jazz and blues club uptown, with a warm hospitable embrace.”
Rev. Royal’s comments were echoed by others. Bob Tate, a retired publishing executive (Essence magazine), adores the club for its “homey, family environment. Always a great time, always great music.” Refined and dignified, the soft-spoken Pierce has been a mainstay at Showmans for 19 years. “It’s a nice place to work. No riff raff, no problems. A nice, mature crowd.”
In April, tough tenor sax man Jerry Weldon, the former lead tenor player with Lionel Hampton (now with Harry Connick Jr.’s big band), treated seniors and tourists to a tribute to the late Jackie McLean. Breathing fire through his horn, Weldon evoked Dexter Gordon as much as J Mac.
The show certainly goes on with performances by artists like high note trumpeter Joey Morant at the Thursday evening tap dance night and the exhilarating organist Jimmy “The Preacher” Robins. “I began a two week gig at Showmans in 1986,” Robins recalls, “and ended up staying for four years and six months.”
Robins listed a few of the musicians who have graced the club’s stage, many who performed there with him: Bill Doggett, “the father of honky tonk”, the Copasetics with hoofer Honi Cole, Gloria Lynne, Ruth Brown, Chaka Khan, Jack McDuff, Ashford & Simpson, Seleno Clarke and George Benson. “Showmans is a mecca of music, barring none,” Robins declared.
One Wednesday night in April organist Akiko Tsuruga burned fiercely on the Hammond B3 organ, evoking Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, whose long-time alto saxophonist Andrew Beals blew curlicue solos with subtlety and dash. Suddenly, a jazz moment: in walked guitarist Eric Johnson to sit in after a gig at the Lenox Lounge. Johnson, already tired from a long night, got a second wind and raised the rhythm section’s simpatico to new heights. Shades of Wes Montgomery octaves joined with Joe Pass-like single-line runs. Finessed triplets and blues chord riffs mixed with bebop harmonic extensions. With conviction, Johnson took Beals and Tsuruga and drummer Taro Okamoto even deeper in the cut.
After saying “Good night, get home safe” to Lil, Mona and two cute young barmaids, I shook hands with Howard and the full-length leather coat-clad Robins who, as always, was holding court, I left the club on a natural high with Gene Ammon’s breathy tenor on “You Go to My Head” ringing in my ears. To experience jazz and blues with a back-in-the-day vibe of earthy sophistication, check out Harlem’s longest-running jazz club - Showmans.
~ Greg Thomas