By Daniel P. Bader. Reprinted from The Manhattan Times.
A hush fell over the crowd at the Cornerstone Center on Fri., June 5 when Uptown Arts Stroll honoree Marjorie Eliot, looking thin but strong in her elegant black evening dress, stood to speak. Escorted by her son, Rudel Drears, she pulled him back as he moved to leave the floor. The crowd of artists and art enthusiasts waited, drama mounting, as Eliot composed herself, arm-in-arm with Drears.
When Eliot spoke she said that her initial impulse was to say no when she heard that the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance wanted to make her one of two artists the Stroll would be dedicated to this year.
Eliot started hosting jazz performances in her living room at 555 Edgecombe Ave. Apt. 3F in 1992 to honor her son, Phillip, who had died from kidney disease. Every Sunday since, the free concerts have attracted artists and audience members from all over the world. In 2006, a second son, Michael died, and the Sunday memorial has grown to remember him as well.
“I didn’t really know what to do with” the NoMAA award, she said. “I get the greatest reward every Sunday when people come to my house.”
There, standing on the hardwood floors of Our Savior’s Atonement Lutheran Church on Bennett Avenue and W. 189th Street in front of Northern Manhattan’s arts community, she said that her Parlor Jazz concerts had been expanded to remember the great Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Petersen, who died in 2007, and Stanley Michels, the former Northern Manhattan City Council member who died last year. And ultimately, she explained, she accepted NoMAA’s tribute to help honor them.
“August 1 our beloved Stanley passed away. It became Oscar, Michael and Stanley,” Eliot said. “Stanley was my dear and lovely friend,” she continued. “We must tell that story now.”
The dramatic speech, met with wild applause, was an early climax of a night filled with jazz, dancing and visual arts — a fitting start to the seventh annual celebration of the arts in Northern Manhattan.
“Marjorie reminded me of why we started the Uptown Arts Stroll,” said photographer and Manhattan Times Associate Publisher Mike Fitelson. “If there’s anything else that artwork does, it’s another language that brings us together.”
The other Stroll honoree was a jazz musician who is expanding the art form by fusing it with traditional Caribbean music. Miguel Zenon, a MacArthur Fellow who last year was awarded a $500,000 grant by the MacArthur Foundation for his work, is a giant behind the saxophone. But the Pinehurst Avenue resident, glancing away from the audience during his speech, humbly accepted the applause and his framed 2009 Uptown Arts Stroll poster.
“I’ve been in this area, first in Inwood then in Washington Heights, since I moved to New York 11 years ago,” Zenon said. “It’s the greatest place in New York — it is.”
He remembers telling his wife how the couple had to figure out a way to stay in Northern Manhattan. “I just told her,” he said. “We’re never leaving this neighborhood.”
The Stroll kickoff, which attracted hundreds of attendees, also served as the open house for NoMAA’s expanded offices and gallery at the Cornerstone Center, where it has been based since being formed in late 2007. The exhibit, curated by the special projects coordinator for El Museo del Barrio Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, is a collection of work from the 2009 NoMAA grantees — a group of 55 local artists collectively awarded $50,000 by the arts alliance. The exhibit will be open to the public weekdays for the next few months.
The Stroll continues through the end of the month. For a complete list of events and open artist’s studios visit www.artstroll.com.