Tucked away in the basement of an unassuming brownstone on 130th Street is an exhilarating find for Harlem’s music aficionados. Every Monday, the New Amsterdam Musical Association holds open mic nights, where anyone is welcome to join in and perform. When the Manhattan Sideways team and I visited during the summer of 2017, we witnessed everything from original pieces written by up-and-coming singers to spoken word poetry to jazz played on a hodgepodge of instruments. In short, everyone with a talent or passion is welcome and encouraged to share their art at these jam sessions. The atmosphere is laid back and fun, helped along by the charismatic presenter’s boundless enthusiasm as he announces each act. “This is the way to enjoy a Monday, ” he shouted, to the roaring approval of the assembled audience. We were frequently invited to respond to and interact with the performers, either through singing along to a chorus or participating in a call-and-response chant. It was easy to get caught up in the energy of the performers. As I watched, one of the jazz players asked if there was a singer in the house. Without hesitating, a young man who had just moved to the city from Texas jumped up and improvised some lyrics to a blues song as the makeshift band behind him free-styled along. It was fantastic to witness a group of people of different ages and backgrounds who have never met before come together for the simple pleasure of creating something for everyone to enjoy. As I chatted with some of the people around me, I learned that NAMA provides an ideal platform for aspiring artists to practice in front of a non-threatening public, while more experienced artists still view it as a chance to experiment with their craft, knowing they will never be received with anything less than cheers and approval. We were lucky enough to witness one of these experiments: one performer tried out ways to “mix art forms” by reciting a poem that transitioned into snippets of songs, all with the accompaniment of the jazz band. The presenter’s response to her performance summed it up perfectly for me: “Every time you come to NAMA, you’re making history, because this place itself is history. ” A banner draped above the stage declares that NAMA was established in 1904, making it the oldest African American musical organization in the US. Pieces of its distinguished history are proudly displayed on the walls, including framed newspaper articles that feature NAMA and pictures of past performers, which include the likes of John Coltrane and Max Roach. The Association was created to fill a gap during a time when black musicians were denied performance opportunities or entry into American musical institutions, and it has since upheld the tradition of promoting African American artistry. Open mic nights are only one aspect of what the New Amsterdam Musical Association does. It also has an affiliated music school, where anyone can take vocal or instrumental lessons free of charge, regardless of age or skill level. Through this and their ongoing events, the organization hopes to foster an appreciation for music and its importance in creating and uniting a community.
Founded in 1968, the organization once known as Aaron Davis Hall, Inc. used to operate in a facility owned by City College New York. A fundraising campaign was initiated in 2000 to restore the stunning structure on the corner of 135th Street and Convent Avenue, built in 1890 as a part of the Croton Aqueduct system, and transform it into a space for performing. Six years later, the organization's efforts came to fruition when it moved into the new Gatehouse facility and officially renamed itself Harlem Stage. When the Manhattan Sideways team toured the space in the summer of 2017, we were impressed by how seamlessly the historic attributes of the building were merged with the modern needs of the renovated theater. In particular, I had to admire the door with the antique, elaborate hinges set into the wall of the staircase leading to the stage on the second floor. It came as no surprise to learn that Harlem Stage had been honored by the New York Landmarks Conservancy for the remarkable job that it did in preserving the original structure. Executive Director Patricia Cruz told us that spearheading the movement to transform the building “from a community eyesore into a community jewel” has been one of the most significant accomplishments of her tenure. Even so, she added, “It is not as important as what we do inside. ” Upon moving into the Gatehouse, Harlem Stage launched the WaterWorks series - “Our most identifiable program, and what makes us unique, ” Patricia explained. Appropriately named in homage to both the facility’s past and its current role as a conduit for culture and artistry, the program serves to find and present new work. In the ten years since its creation, it has commissioned and supported fifty artists, five of whom went on to become MacArthur “Genius” Fellows. Monique Martin, director of programming, emphasized that the WaterWorks series identifies an artist as extraordinary and encourages new, original work in the process. “Our identifying them before the rest of the world did is a sign of our curatorial excellence, ” Patricia added. The staff at Harlem Stage take pride in their ability to incubate new artists, especially artists of color, and support them through offering mentorship, frequent workshops, and plenty of available space to work. The two women stressed the importance of what they do, as “it is rare for artists of color to be given the resources they need to develop new work, which is so critical to the diversity in the field. ” Recognizing the significance of this mission, they are now embarking on a $10 million campaign to continue running WaterWorks for another ten years. While creating a platform for original work, Harlem Stage has also built an audience. Through programs such as Dig Deeper, they encourage the community to meet and interact with their artists while learning more about the process of putting on a performance through arranging open rehearsals, panel discussions, and more. Their efforts have paid off thus far, as their performances typically boast sold out audiences. “The identity of Harlem is part of the larger legacy of Harlem Stage, ” Patricia explained, which is why they place such importance on connecting with all members of the community. This focus is not limited to adults - the Frances Davis/Harlem Stage Arts Education program is centered on exposing children to the arts. The program serves 4, 000 children in the Harlem area annually and has reached over 400, 000 in total. Its goal is to try to fill the gap in public education caused by a reduction in funding for the arts. To this end, Harlem Stage sends teaching artists to schools and ask them to engage with students, upholding the philosophy that “all art is appropriate and available for young artists. ” Patricia mentioned that the question of age-appropriate subject matter is a common concern when creating youth theater programs. She maintained, “We’re selecting and curating an experience for them, but we don’t pander to our young audiences. ” Adolescents are also encouraged to participate in various high school programs that connect them with Harlem Stage’s production team, allowing them to learn the technical side of theater under the guidance of experienced mentors. These are only a small sampling of Harlem Stage's offerings, we were told, as the organization has taken pains to create “programming that has range and depth. ” Those at Harlem Stage provide opportunities within as many areas of the arts as possible, including dance, film, and music. By creating a space that is versatile and open to creative expression in all its forms, they hope to accomplish their ultimate goal - “to continue to build on the legacy that Harlem has made in our culture and that Harlem Stage has done since its inception. ”