Harlem Blues: Remembering Sam Hargress Jr.

Filmmaker Christina Kallas on the loss of a New York City jazz legend, and her upcoming film which he inspired.

Sam Hargress Jr. died this past weekend.

My beautiful dear friend, known and loved by many as the owner of the legendary Paris Blues jazz dive in Harlem, is one of the 398 people who passed from COVID-19 in New York City on April 10, 2020.

April 9 was his 84th birthday.

Sam’s birthdays were legendary. People would come from all over the country to celebrate him, and boy, did he love that. He would wear one of his dazzling suits and hats, from his collection of 46, which he once showed me with great pride: He had a golden suit, and a red one, but the one he loved most was the white suit. A bright white suit with a matching hat — always a matching hat and always sunglasses. Just like the song, Sam would wear his sunglasses at night.

Writer-director Christina Kallas (center) and some of her cast while filming in the Paris Blues.

When I started working on Paris is in Harlem the film I shot last November, the film I had to stop editing because of the shutdown – the biggest challenge was casting the character inspired by Sam. After all, I had started writing this film because I met Sam and because I fell in love with his creation, the Paris Blues. It captured the spirit of our city and was a reminder that the old New York will never cease to exist. I used to joke that I decided to move to Harlem the moment I walked into the Paris Blues. I just wanted to be as close as possible to what, to me, was pure magic: a place where you could hear great music every single night, music that would make your troubles disappear. Over the years, it became a second home, a place I would always go, mostly alone but also with friends, when I was down or when I wanted to celebrate. And, most importantly, when I needed a hug from Sam, and from Esther and Judith, the sisters who have been running the bar for him since they came here from the Dominican Republic 20 years ago. I ended up moving two blocks from the Paris Blues, and this is where I am writing this now, shut in with my grief, unable to hug all the people I want to share my pain with.

My pain and my anger. Because Sam Hargress Jr. was one of those people who would have lived to be 110. He always took good care of everyone, but he also took good care of himself. And he was a fighter. I will never forget the last time I saw him. We had just finished our final shoot at the bar, the main location of Paris is in Harlem, where we had filmed for days, always after midnight, sometimes till the next evening. Being able to shoot there, having fought for years to make this film against all odds, meant a lot. We had one more location that day, so I ran in to say a quick goodbye. It was early morning, and Sam was alone. The moment he saw me, he opened his arms. “You did it!” he declared. “You said you would, and you did. Girl, you’re a fighter as few I know.”

Christina Kallas (center right) with Sam Hargress Jr. (right) outside the Paris Blues.

Something ran through my blood at that moment. Something that made me grow and stand taller and tear up. To have Sam Hargress Jr. call me a fighter, one like few he knew, was one of the highest honors I could imagine and one of the greatest I could hope for. It was like being knighted by a king. And not just any king.

Sam lived through eight New York City mayors, the riots of 1968, and the blackouts of 1977 and 2003. There’s a reason why hanging on the walls of the Paris Blues, among awards, signed letters and photos with Martin Luther King, is the key to the city from its current mayor, Bill De Blasio: It made Sam proud like a little boy. Others are better equipped to talk about all that he went through, the good and the bad — although for anyone who has lived in America, one can maybe imagine what a black man of 84 had seen and endured.

Sam opened the bar in 1969. He named it Paris Blues, not after the 1961 film with Sidney Poitier as expatriate jazz saxophonist Eddie Cook, and Paul Newman as trombone-playing Ram Bowen — but because of the Harlem Hellfighters, a black infantry unit that liberated France in World War I, of which his grandfather was a part. “Any black soldier who went to Paris for the war came back and said they were treated so much better there than at home,” he would tell everyone who asked him about it. “So I named Paris Blues after them and the music.”

A still from Paris is in Harlem.

Sam was the king of fighters. And he had still a lot to live for: a lot of hugs to give, a lot of artists to empower, a lot of music to pass on to the world. But he went down. I was told that an ambulance was called three times before they took Sam to the hospital; each time, he was told he was not sick enough. And I know that the NYC jazz community, many of whose members are close friends now, is taking a major hit. Not a day goes by without trying to find words to express raw emotions of grief and to comfort the heartbroken.

There are many jazz musicians whose deaths, in the light of how many are passing away at the moment, don’t make the headlines, in addition to the giants who do. Saxophonist Marcelo Peralta, who died of the virus on March 10 in Madrid, just days after turning 59. Manu Dibango, 86, the Cameroonian afro-jazz saxophone icon. Mike Longo, 83, the pianist and musical director for Dizzy Gillespie. On April 1, the world lost both 85-year-old Ellis Marsalis Jr., the pianist, educator, and patriarch of the illustrious jazz family, and acclaimed guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, 94. A day earlier, it was legendary trumpeter and Miles Davis protégé Wallace Roney, 59, the brother of saxophonist Antoine Roney and uncle of drumming prodigy Kojo Roney, both of whom appear in my film.

Camille Thurman and Antoine Roney in Paris is in Harlem. (Photo by Sergei Franklin.)

One of the characters in Paris is in Harlem says, “Jazz is America’s biggest contribution to the world.” He says it because I believe it to be true. And if it is true, to see COVID-19 claim the lives of so many musicians — some of them the creators of jazz, and our last connection to its beginnings — can only mean that we are experiencing a moment of unimaginable loss. American culture and as a result, world culture, is being drained of a very important part of its life force.

I am angry. The anger helps me deal with a sadness I cannot yet process, and definitely cannot process alone. It helps me deal with the sense of immense and unjust loss.

When my previous film, The Rainbow Experiment, had its NYC premiere two years ago, I wanted it to be in Harlem. So, it opened the Harlem International Film Festival and of course Sam was a guest of honor — as were Judith and Esther. After the premiere, we all went to the Paris Blues. Sam and my girls had put up a dazzling banner welcoming the film and the festival, and they were serving a cocktail they had created specifically for the occasion, also called the Rainbow Experiment. Sam loved celebrations.

He also “got” the film in a way that made me blissful. We talked about it a lot, about what the film meant to him, about its mantra, “the world you see is just a movie in your mind.”

I always went by Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” When I was writing and making Paris is in Harlem, that “one person” I wrote for was Sam. And if I managed to capture his kindness, his wisdom, his spirituality, his generosity, his childlike enthusiasm, his style … even a little bit — he set the bar very high in terms of how one should behave as a human being — I will be satisfied. I always imagined he would stand next to me at the premiere. That will not happen now. Will there even be a premiere, I wonder, where people will stand next to one another?

Paris is in Harlem is fictional. One of its characters, Sam, is inspired by the substance of Sam Hargress Jr, but the film is not in any way biographical. And I got lucky. The actor who plays Sam is Leon Addison Brown, a similarly kind, wise, generous, beautiful human being. Sam is one of several characters that the film follows through separate, intertwined storylines that converge one night during an alleged shooting at a jazz bar in Harlem in 2017 — on the day the infamous Cabaret (or “No Dancing”) Law, NYC’s “darkest secret,” was repealed. I keep describing it as a soulful drama about a changing country, but it is really my effort to capture America as it was still a month ago — a nation on the verge of a nervous breakdown, created through the absurdity of the current moment. And I want the film to have the same effect as Paris Blues. After watching it, I want people to feel in their gut that everything is going to be all right — despite the darkness and the division, the separation that we are experiencing right now, on so many levels. Even more so, now that we are collectively going through that breakdown, and with an intensity we could have never imagined before.

Sam Hargress Jr. in a cameo from Paris is in Harlem. (Photo by Dave Sharples.)

“Look around,” says one of the film’s characters. “New York City is jazz, and jazz is New York City.” The truth of the matter is that at the height of the NYC jazz movement, because of that very law that was only just repealed, many jazz musicians left for Paris — where, like Harlem’s Hellfighters, they were treated so much better than back home and respected as musicians whose art was incredibly valuable to the world’s culture. Thus, the title of the film: a reflection of a very real dream in which the freedom and happiness American musicians felt in Paris is finally brought back to New York. Now, the title will be first and foremost a tribute to Sam — and his dream, and his very real fight for a better world.

Recently, I read a David Lynch interview in which he said we had been going down the wrong path, and that this global pandemic was going to be painful, but that it would lead to a “new way of thinking.” That it would be a different world on the other side, a kinder and more spiritual world. I happen to think that David Lynch is one of the sharpest and most perceptive minds around, so I choose to believe him.

I only wish that when we get to the other side, Sam were there to see it too.

Featured image of Sam Hargress Jr by Dave Sharples.

Christina Kallas is a transnational New York-based feature writer and director. She is best known for the critically acclaimed ensemble dramas The Rainbow Experiment and 42 Seconds of Happiness, and for the John Hurt-starring, Golden Berlin Bear-nominated political thriller The Commissioner. Released worldwide by Gravitas Ventures, The Rainbow Experiment debuted at the Slamdance Film Festival and Moscow International Film Festival 2018. In 2016, Kallas scored on the film festival circuit with her award-winning feature 42 Seconds of Happiness. Prior credits as a writer/producer include BBC Films and Polygram’s hooligan drama, I.D.; Toronto and Berlin selection hybrid narrative/doc Mothers; and European TV series hits, Danni Lowinski and Edel & Starck. She is also known as author of books such as Creative Screenwriting: Understanding Emotional Structure and Inside the Writers’ Room: Conversations with American TV Writers. She was the President of the FSE, the European equivalent of the Writers Guild of America, for eight consecutive years. Kallas is a member of the European Film Academy, the German Film Academy and of the New York chapter of Film Fatales.