The experience of Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Jazz starts at the corner of St. Nicholas Ave and West 160th Street, a block away from 555 Edgecombe Ave in Sugar Hill. Sunday afternoon, 1:45 pm, and the queue is already growing. All waiting in anticipation to be led into apartment 3F, the home of “Harlem’s secret jazz queen of Sugar Hill,” Marjorie Eliot.
Every Sunday for more than two decades, rain or shine, holiday or not, with no interruptions, a jazz concert has taken place in the parlor of Marjorie Eliot’s apartment, located on what she dubs as the tip of the island. When I called her landline to ask whether the concert was still a go, even though it was Easter Sunday, Marjorie emphatically replied that it “damn sure is.”
Her weekly free concerts in the living room of her apartment are legendary in Harlem, upholding the musical legacy of a neighborhood that nurtured legends like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.
Dedicated to her two sons who’ve passed, the informal concerts feature a revolving lineup of talented musicians whom she handpicks and pays out of pocket. The result is one of the most enchanting experiences in New York – no tickets, no door charges or drink minimums; all you’ve got to do is show up at 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon. A tip bucket gets passed, but no one’s obligated to pay – though, trust us, you will want to.
Picture this: a narrow hallway lined with chairs, walls plastered with newspaper clippings and photos of a young Marjorie playing alongside Duke Ellington, a living room full of padded chairs, and furniture with the memories locked in, and an an upright piano. This has been the home of Marjorie Eliot for 38 years. And for the last 27 of them, she has presented live jazz in her parlor, fifty-two Sundays a year, 3 p.m. sharp-ish. Leading some folks to declare her and her home as a New York City landmark.
A full house is a crowd of fifty. Marjorie greets each guest at the door: the atmosphere is friendly, homey, and welcoming. This is the place to be on any given Sunday. Regular saxophonist Cedric Show Croon told NPR, “When you play here you have to be honest. You can only play in an honest way, you know.”
Marjorie’s son Phil died in 1992, at 32, from kidney problems. His death came on a Sunday, and she began these concerts as a way to make Sundays easier on her soul. The music turned into a prayer that answered itself. Both Marjorie and her visitors find solace and grace in the music. In 2006, her other son, Michael, 47, fell ill with meningitis and died. And then, in 2011, her third and last son, Shaun, disappeared shortly after he boarded the M101 bus on Amsterdam Avenue at 160th Street, a few blocks from home. The Sunday concerts turned into a space for healing, from grief, from pain, from loss. At the end of every concert, Marjorie shares the story with the audience, telling everyone why she does this – on MLK day, she confessed, “Sundays are the only things I look forward to. They’re why I’m still alive.”
On Sunday, she will ring the buzzer again, welcoming in a new crowd of guests. After all, it’s Black History Month, so you can bet that she’s going to be celebrating.