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TimeOut New York Cover Story April 2003
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"Hey, guys. Let's keep the solos shorter, or else we'll be here all night..." Seleno Clarke says with a smile from his perch behind a Hammond B3 organ. Back in the 1950s and '60s, when Harlem was a hotbed of live jazz, such an instrument was de rigueur in most clubs. By the 1970s, however, the organ had fallen from favor, chased from the scene by the more versatile synthesizer. In recent years, the jazz organ has been making resurgence, and every Sunday night in Harlem , you can hear its sweet swelling sounds in the small brick-walled basement of American Legion Post 398. Here, veteran organist Seleno Clarke hammers his Hammond , leading a free-for-all jam session that draws a diverse mix of musicians and fans from all over the city.

Like jazz itself, the weekly show - which attracts surprise guests such as Russell Malone and Grady Tate - wasn't planned. It just happened. In 1998, Clarke, who declines to give his age ("Can you just put down 50-plus?"), lugged his 350-pound Hammond into the brownstone that houses Post 398. "We'd just practice, me and my drummer, and the people liked it. One Sunday night, I didn't show up, and they got upset. 'Hey, where's Seleno?' So you might say "I'm here by popular demand."

Now in its fifth year, the jam session has lately been drawing more and more music lovers. And no wonder: Clarke, who has played with the likes of Count Basie and George Benson, is warm, welcoming and absolutely ferocious on the B3, which he calls "the grandfather of all electronic instruments."

The shows begin at 7pm , when Clarke an his supporting cast - Russian guitarist Nat Harris and French drummer Renaud "Uno´┐Ż Penant´┐Żbegin blazing through a repertoire of jazz and swing standards ("I Can't Get Started") along with his own tunes (the danceable "BJ. Blues"). After a few sets, 20 or so musicians - organists, trumpet players, sax men - begin crowding the bandstand, waiting for the call. One night, drummer Tate challenged Clarke to a scat-singing contest (and won). Another evening, 92-year-old local saxophonist Max Lucas, who jammed with Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk, popped in to prove he can still make his tenor sing. At times, the host will insist an old friend join as fellow organ player Lonnie Smith discovered when he declined Clarke's invitation to jam. "Lonnie, you're in Harlem"; Clarke said. "You're going to play" He played.

While veterans are always on hand, young musicians often outnumber the old. Clarke considers Sunday nights his chance to bridge the gap between jazz generations - and to teach newbies a thing or two about getting a joint jumping. "My motto is, Keep it short and simple. Don't show off," he says. "You have to keep the audience engaged. Save the flash for when you're jamming with your buddies. Make the people clap their hands and nod their heads. You don't learn this at Juilliard. You don't learn this at the New School . You learn this in Harlem."

Looking the part is also key. Clarke wears a smart two-piece suit, so he always exudes class. Well, almost always. "Back in '68, '69 was playing in Newark with Count Basie, wearing a silk-mohair suit, "he recalls," It was a little tight. I jumped on the stage and split my pants right in the back. And they gave me a standing ovation!"

Most young musicians consider the jam a complimentary music lesson from a master (there's no charge for the show, although a "love jar" that benefits the Post does make the rounds). "He's awesome," says Akiko Tsuruga, an organist who studied music in Japan before moving to New York . "A friend suggested that if I wanted to learn how to really play, I had to see Seleno."

Though praised for his pedal pushing, Clarke began his career as a tenor-sax player. He didn't discover the organ until 1967, when, after moving from his native Washington , D.Q, to Harlem, he met Benson and legendary organist "Brother" Jack McDuff, who were performing at Count Basie's club in Harlem . What he heard sounded nothing like the church organ he remembered from his childhood.

"Jack was inspiring," Clarke says of his mentor, who was so attached to his Hammond he was known to sleep on it. "After hearing him, I had to switch instruments, even though the sax was supporting my family. Jack had a groove. He got people moving in their seats. He got them clapping. That's what jazz is about - getting people to stand up."

Even though the organ would fall out of fashion in jazz clubs, Clarke hung tough. "I never gave it up - I love it," he says. "I felt it was up to me to help carry on. That's what these sessions are about, the tradition, recapturing that groove."

He remains a fixture at area spots like Showman's and the Lenox Lounge and does occasional gigs at Zinc Bar. But Clarke feels most at ease in the Post's cozy basement, where the vibe is comforting and the food is homespun (fried chicken, turkey wings, peas and rice). "I love it here," he says with a smile. "This is my living room."

It's like that Y'all. Clarke, has one rule for his up-and-coming charges: "Check your ego at the door."

Jam Sessions, Americal Legion Post 398, 248 W 132nd St. Sundays 7pm-midnight. Free!