Sam Hargress, the owner of Paris Blues, my favorite place for live jazz in NYC, died of complications resulting from COVID-1 back on April 10th. Amid the disorientation and fog of the pandemic and dealing with my own challenges and that of family members, friends and colleagues, I somehow missed his obituary.
Sam opened his juke joint/dive-bar back in 1969, lived in an apartment upstairs, and held court in the tiny outdoor patio in front of the bar, warmly greeting regulars and newcomers alike. I would often stop by with a group during a daytime walking tour or bring a group in for the music on an evening Harlem Jazz Tour. Sam was often there to greet people and shake hands.
So many memories of Paris Blues swirl in my head – I have fond memories introducing people to the place, it exuded so much authenticity and warmth, and the music was terrific, with no cover charge (bucket passed around after each set for contributions), and free chicken, rice and veggies. The place is so small, the stage looks like an afterthought but people still find space to dance. You can’t help striking up conversations with strangers – there was this feeling that all who entered Paris Blues were part of Sam’s extended family.
When I planned to bring a group by in the evening (sometimes as many as 20 people),
I would call Sam on the phone in advance to let him know. He always recognized my name and voice and enthusiastically welcomed our group. I would tell him “we’re gonna pack your place tonight” and I could envision him chuckling with delight.
Sam owned the building which helped weather all the storms during the decades where Harlem and a good portion of the city suffered from urban blight, high crime and drug wars. My understanding is he named his bar Paris Blues in honor of the Harlem Hellfighters, the infantry regiment (369th) whose brave WW2 African American soldiers spent more time in the trenches than most other regiments. His grandfather was a Hellfighter and after the war 170 soldiers were given France’s military honors Croix de Guerre amid cheers from the people of Paris.
I read through some of the obituaries and am sharing these three which will give you some additional background on Sam and his contributions to the community. I’ve heard his son is planning to continue Paris Blues, and I look forward to returning when it opens, sharing in the memories of Sam and all that he has left behind.
Links to articles on Sam and a short 6 minute video featuring Sam talking,