Jazz music, black community and 50 years of the Montclair DLV Lounge (Our Montclair)
This article reflects only part of the conversation in the latest episode of “Our Montclair,” a series of videos and podcasts showcasing art, activism, awareness, and connections among Montclair residents.
Chat with Our Montclair Host and Producer Shane Paul Neil LIVE at the “Our Montclair” video premiere, Thursday, March 31 at 7 p.m. on Facebook.com/MontclairLocal – or find the video in this article.
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By SHANE PAUL NEIL
For the Montclair Local
For almost as long as there has been jazz music, there has been jazz in Montclair.
The connection is hard to miss. Last years Montclair Jazz Festival took a stretch of Bloomfield Avenue from Church Street to Lackawanna Plaza, attended by thousands of Montclarians and visitors – a raucous celebration in a year when the coronavirus pandemic has still muted so many gatherings. But jazz is in the air at Montclair all year round, in its clubs, in programs such as Jazz House Kids (the organizer of the festival), in the souls, talents and stories of so many people who make de Montclair their home.
Since the establishment of the DLV Lounge at 300 Bloomfield Avenue in 1972, jazz artists have been a welcome guest – and over the years the bar has become one of the area’s go-to jazz spots. She celebrated her 50th birthday in March.
George Marable, 83, has owned and operated DLV since his family, who owned small clubs and bars in Newark, decided to open a club in Montclair. It is named after Marable’s parents – Dutch and Louise – and his daughter, Valerie.
I spoke to Marable for the latest edition of “Our Montclair”, Montclair Local’s ongoing podcast and video series exploring the arts, activism, culture and life of Montclair. When I asked him why there was no G for George in the name, he laughed.
“I was not consulted,” Marable told me.
But for many regulars, DLV is “George’s Place”.
When I arrived on a recent Saturday night, the place was comfortably full. Most of the seats in the bar were taken, as were the small tables on the opposite wall. Everyone told me the living room was packed the night before.
I found Marable sitting at the barstool closest to the living room entrance. He was sipping brown liquor from a small glass of cordial. I sat next to him and ordered a bourbon. The group still assembled at 9 p.m., despite the sandwich board outside advertising music starting at 8:30 p.m.
“Musicians are never on time,” Marable told me. From there, he started introducing me to the regulars.
DLV is reminiscent of a bar you might find in a Walter Mosley mystery novel. It’s a space where everyone seems to know each other, even if they just met for the first time. It’s easy to imagine DLV as the space those who worked in fancier establishments went to when they rang the clock and wanted to be among their own, where musicians exchanged philosophies with poets and fueled creativity. from each other.
The space is narrow, with a long wooden bar that leads to the back of the living room, where the small stage sits. The walls are adorned with gold records, photographs and movie posters illuminated by lights of different colors. The memorabilia recalls the history of music, the salon and the family that has kept it running for five decades.
Clients tell me stories about their years at the salon. Most of the stories reflect a reverence for Marable – a reverence that seems universal. They get up to make sure Marable has a place to sit. He refuses every time.
The history of jazz in Montclair, shared with me by percussionist and jazz historian Bruce Tyler, is long and storied, dating back to the days of Prohibition. In the 1920s, Montclair speakeasys often played jazz music for their white audiences, he said.
Tyler, who grew up in Montclair and still lives in town, told me he saw the remains of one of the underground bars in a building on Claremont and North Fullerton avenues.
“I always heard rumors about it. When I moved into the building, the superintendent took me down, and in fact, some of the glass from one of the raids is still there,” did he declare.
Tyler, who once fronted house band DLV, has spent years archiving jazz history in Montclair. In addition to being a musician, Tyler studied anthropology at Montclair State University and started the Montclair Jazz Project in 2003 with television producer Paul Brown and photographer Glen Friesen. The initial goal of the project was to photograph the many jazz musicians of Montclair together, in the vein of Gordon Parks’ photography.A beautiful day in Harlem.”
It became an archive of memorabilia and written records that now resides at the Montclair Public Library.
“This weird thing just popped into my head,” Tyler told me, sitting next to Marable at the DLV. “There is no history of jazz here. I started thinking about black history in Montclair. Is it well documented? And that led to the music.
DLV opened just five years after the Newark Riots in 1967. It was a time when towns like Montclair relied on issues of race and class. It was a transition that, at times, was not greeted with the warmest of intentions.
“Before my family became owners, very few black people came to (Montclair). In many places in Montclair in the early 70s, when black people came in, they would break the glasses to let you know you were really not welcome,” Marable said.
But musical contributions from black people had long been welcome. Montclair and Tyler went through a list of some of the jazz greats who performed in Montclair: Cal Bassey, Johnny Lytle, Big John Patton, Ed Cherry, David Murray. The list is lengthened increasingly. Even before DLV became known as a jazz lounge, artists would hang out there between shows.
“There were three black-owned places in Montclair – The Sturgeon House, The Willow and DLV,” Marable recalled. “The artists used to play at The Sturgeon, but when they took a break, they came here and at The Willow.”
Black residents and visitors had a trinity of clubs where they would be welcome and safe, he said. But there was a downside, he said – if a crime happened anywhere near the clubs, it would be associated with the clubs themselves, even if there was no connection.
“I remember pretty much anything that happened that was negative the papers would refer to as happening in or near DLV,” Marable said.
And so DLV and the other clubs have developed a bad reputation, he said. He declined to provide specific examples. It is clear that DLV’s reputation is dear to Marable; conjuring up the ghosts of past incidents is not worth it.
Talking to Marable and Tyler about jazz reminds me of my own hip-hop roots, growing up in the Bronx — and the parallels between the two genres, how they were received by mainstream audiences. The world found hip-hop music fascinating, but distrusted the closeness to those who created it. Jazz and hip-hop were forces of cultural unification, and that unification scared a lot of people.
When I ask Tyler what he learned from his years of documenting the history of jazz at Montclair and his performances, he replies, “Montclair has always been a jazz community, and from what I have seen, this community is rooted in the Fourth Ward and the South End. I believe that music was a more important factor than sport in terms of integration.
At DLV, Marable maintains a strict code of conduct, he said. Swearing should be kept to a minimum, while raunching and harassment will have you shaking.
“I’m sometimes tough, but sometimes you have to be,” he said. “You have to let people know what you stand for and what you want. Otherwise, they will scare you away.
Montclair’s history of race and class is as nuanced and complicated as the music itself. It’s a city that prides itself on being inclusive in a way that can sometimes accentuate its ideals more than its reality, to the point where the rougher edges of history are polished to a brilliant shine.
We can never forget that the composition of the Fourth Ward, which Tyler credits with bringing jazz to Montclair, is itself a product of redlining and segregation. Montclair’s progressive aspirations are, in part, driven by a desire to correct the mistakes of his past – and that’s OK. More than correct, it’s admirable.
Over the past 50 years, DLV Lounge has woven itself into the fabric of Montclair, mostly with Marable sitting at the stool by the front door. It’s time for us all to stop and soak up the history and the community behind its door.
Just try not to curse while you’re there.