The Cecil Hotel was a beautiful building in its heyday. Built in 1895, when Harlem was the preserve of New York’s white bourgeoisie, this five-story trapezoid-shaped hotel was designed to accommodate the unique corner of 118th and St. Nicholas, which runs diagonally across Manhattan’s well-known grid.
By the 1930s, the Cecil had lost much of its luster as well as its patronage, but it was suitably located to become part of Harlem’s vibrant nightlife, especially after the repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933.
In 1938, a musician and former club owner named Monroe Henry Minton decided to transform the dining room and bar of the Cecil Hotel into a Jazz club, which he named Minton’s Playhouse. Minton—known by his colleagues as M.H., or just Henry—wasn’t just any musician.
Born in Virginia in 1884, the “old man” was a pioneer among the first generation of black jazz musicians who came up through the vaudeville circuit and made some of the genre’s first recordings.
Minton was less known for his musicianship than for his role in the musicians’ union. He was the first black delegate to Local 802 and, for many years, the union’s sergeant-at-arms in Harlem, making him the highest-ranking black official in the local. Despite the distrust between African-Americans and Local 802, Minton earned a reputation as a tireless advocate and a generous man, assisting fellow musicians in need of advice or a few extra dollars.
Minton went back to performing for a few years before opening Minton’s Playhouse in 1938. This time around, unencumbered by union bureaucracy, he wanted his club to embody the spirit and atmosphere of the old Rhythm Club. Initially the house band was led by Albert “Happy” Caldwell, a tenor player best known for his work a decade earlier with Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Jelly Roll Morton.