Parsons and his wife of 46 years, Laura Parsons, met Alexander Smalls more than 20 years ago as patrons of Smalls’ first restaurant, Café Beulah. They lived nearby and were apparently drawn to Smalls’ buoyant grace as well as his “Southern revival” spin on low-country cooking from Charleston and Beaufort, S.C., and the Gullah Islands.
“We’re family,” Smalls says of his relationship with the Parsons. Visual art and baking were passions he shared with Laura, whom her husband says is like the chief operating officer of the two restaurants. “We have a profoundly generous and affectionate friendship,” Smalls continues. “Dick and I love to tell stories, love to eat, and we appreciate the finer things in life. … Unbeknownst to me for a while was that Dick had a passion for jazz and wanted to have a jazz club. For me, having been a professional opera singer prior to becoming a restaurateur, this was music to my ears—pardon the pun.”
Smalls studied culinary arts in Italy and France and combined such training with his homegrown passion for cooking. The Cecil adds Asian and African Diaspora cuisine to his rich culinary repertoire; at Minton’s he’s focusing again on Southern revival with low-country notes, yet with an elevation of the “presentation and taste to a higher level of expression.”
Smalls admits that the upscale frame of fine dining and jazz is exceptional. “We married jazz and fine dining. Miles Davis once said that Harlem was the most sophisticated place in New York. Look at the old photos of Harlem; you rarely find one without everyone in hats and suits and ties—elegant to perfection. So this notion that we have imposed a ritual of elegance by requiring jackets is preposterous. It’s a disservice to what Minton’s was.”
They also honor the Minton’s legacy by, as Parsons describes, “stretching boundaries and going in new directions,” via a new Wednesday-night series presented by the Revive Music Group. Minton’s started solely with a house band made up of members of the Jazz Foundation of America, for which Parsons serves as board chair. This new series brings a more contemporary flavor.
“The idea was always to have the young lions of jazz meet the old, to fulfill the legacy of what Minton’s was about,” says Smalls, “and to also fulfill the mission of becoming a first-rate house for performances.”
He concludes: “Dick and I are so excited and honored. We take the responsibility of being the caretakers of this historic piece of the Harlem community very seriously … and want to be a beacon and a foundation for other aspiring people of color. All of that plays very significantly when we, as African-American men, participate in this way.”