A long-running Harlem jazz club, closed in 1986
"Remember: Small's Paradise" from Harlem + Bespoke
"Historic Harlem" from The Big Onion Guide to NYC
There once was a dance club called Smalls' Paradise up in Harlem off Lenox Avenue. Our group of early adopters of the swing dance revival craze would go up there in the mid 80s. There, the Harlem All Star Jazz Band would play while we danced along with Frankie Manning and other old time Lindy Hoppers. The Band was made up mostly of septuagenarians, but they knew how to make music. The place had seen better days and its tinny sound system seemed to have been scavenged from the kind of portable record player I had in Jr. High in the late 60s. But I've never been to a place like it before or since. Every evening there would be a guest performance in between sets. The one that has stuck in my mind was the soft shoe performance that proved to me that experience can trounce youth and energy. That evening there were two performers, an ancient gentleman and a handsome young man. We were all impressed by the acrobatic demonstration of skill and energy of the young tap dancer. But when the old veteran took the stage, he took our collective breaths away. He didn't move fast, and he didn't jump high, but his timing and style were impeccable and he made his opener look like an amateur in comparison.
Opened in basement premises in 1925 by Ed Smalls, Smalls' Paradise became one of the most successful and longest running clubs in Harlem. Surviving the Depression and the postwar years, periods when most venues in Harlem had to close, Smalls' remained open up until 1986.
My father I.H. Feldman was its architect, according to a book by Michael Henry Adams. The place was well known to its largely white intellectual and artistic clientele, and many prominent jazz musicians played at Smalls' Paradise. It was as important as the Cotton Club and the Savoy to Harlem's cultural history. Aaron Siskin photographed its dancers and the interior; Helen Frankenthaler painted an abstract painting, "Smalls' Paradise."
This was the first integrated night club, and Charlie Johnson played here. The building, designed in an art deco style, has just completed redevelopment. It is now the site of the Thurgood Marshall Academy. Most of the building has been demolished, but two exterior walls have been retained. Malcolm X was a waiter here.