After Hours: New York's Jazz Joints Through the Ages

Jazz joints come and jazz joints go—especially in New York City. From tightly packed bars downtown to spacious dinner clubs uptown, it’s a historic lineage. Much has changed over the years (Birdland’s smoky elegance in the ’50s would be impossible with Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on indoor smoking) and much has not, like set lengths, drink minimums and the apparent majority view that jazz sounds best in New York City one floor below street level (Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola notwithstanding).

One jazz rule seems immutable: Before musicians can reach those grand uptown theaters or the big festival stages, they must first make it in the clubs of New York City. They are still the proving ground. It’s been that way since the ’20s. The nightclubs that follow are celebrated less for being the most popular in their day—many were not—and more for accurately representing the music and spirit of the time. Often they predicted sounds and societal shifts just around the corner.

It was a challenging process selecting one from each decade. Some eras, like the ’40s when 52nd Street was in full swing, offered far too many choices: Every club on “The Street” (Three Deuces, Onyx Club) and, of course, Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem held the seeds of modern jazz. Also, to which decade does the Village Vanguard belong? It has consistently presented visionary music during its 71-year history. And what about all those great neighborhood bars in Brooklyn?

The list was limited to venues with a Manhattan address. Save for one, none remain standing in their original form.

1920S

The Cotton Club

644 Lenox Avenue (at 142nd Street)

Peak years: 1920 (as Club DeLuxe) to 1936

The 1920s were labeled the Jazz Age but the music was only a part of it: Social rules were being rewritten, and in Manhattan, downtown was going up as white society and dollars poured into Harlem every night. Nightclubs and dancehalls began presenting entertainment that delivered a romanticized (and often quite derogatory) view of black culture: floor shows, revues with skits and musical numbers and music for dancing. The Cotton Club seated up to 400, and was one of Harlem’s classiest, located on the second floor of a long, modern apartment building.

It had opened in 1920 as Club DeLuxe and by the height of the decade was known for presenting only the best talent of the day: Louis Armstrong, Ethel Waters, Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers. In late 1927, the club’s level of sophistication was raised higher when it booked Duke Ellington’s 11-piece orchestra for a four-year run.

Ellington was young, cocky and at his most prolific. He could compose a full revue in an evening and had already seen success downtown at the Kentucky Club near Times Square. In 1927, he expanded his lineup to meet the requirement of the Cotton Club, and wrote for his band, the shows and even for the dance acts.

Ellington was introducing classical ideas and structures—instrumental color and textures—that elevated “saloon music” to an unexpected level of expression and nuance in tunes like “Black Beauty,” “Harlem Flat Blues” and “Creole Love Call.” The sound reached a national audience when Ellington’s Cotton Club performances were aired on the fledgling CBS network, and the notion of what jazz should sound like (and represent) was changed forever. “It was as though Ellington had taken the traditional instruments of Negro American music and modified them, extended their range and enriched their tonal possibilities,” wrote Ralph Ellison of those broadcasts. (Critics would say the same of John Coltrane decades later.)

The Cotton Club continued after Ellington left—and how. Legendary songwriter Harold Arlen penned a number of shows to be debuted at the venue, featuring classics like “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Stormy Weather.” Many of those tunes were written for Cab Calloway (whose run at the club began in 1932), fresh from his hit with “Minnie the Moocher.”

The club’s glory days were brought to an end with Harlem riots of 1935. The next year it moved downtown to West 48th Street. Even with Ellington returning to headline, the club did not outlive the decade and closed its doors in 1940. In the years that followed, the Cotton Club name and spirit have been revived time and again for a variety of establishments.

1930s

Café Society

1 Sheridan Square (7th Avenue South and Christopher Street)

Peak years: 1938 to late ’40s

The Great Depression pushed many to look leftward in their politics and to find elegance—and hard-bitten reality—in the cultural output of the less fortunate. With the help of likeminded producer John Hammond, salesman and jazz enthusiast Barney Josephson opened a nightclub in 1938 in Greenwich Village, New York City’s bohemian heart.

Café Society was the flip side of the Cotton Club, a basement room that sought to integrate audiences by bringing black patrons downtown (often seating those of color at preferred tables). It looked down upon the standard pecking order, drawing common folk and high-society celebrities alike—even Eleanor Roosevelt. It had doormen dressed in rags who did nothing when guests arrived. The music it featured was the center of attention—no dancing, no clowning and no talking.

Hammond convinced Josephson to book Billie Holiday for the club’s debut. The timing was perfect: The singer, fresh from her career-launching stints as singer with bands led by Artie Shaw and Count Basie, was about to break out on her own. She began a popular nine-month run. Then came “Strange Fruit”—a poem written by high school teacher Abel Meeropol that was put to music. For the latter half of her engagement at the club, Holiday performed the bitter tale of Southern lynchings as her set closer, a spotlight trained on her and all else in silence. The performance became a hit recording on Milt Gabler’s Commodore label. (Gabler and Holiday together penned the B-side tune “Fine and Mellow” at Café Society). It also assured renown for the singer and consistent crowds for the club.

Over the next 10 years, Café Society was the venue of choice for singers on their way up, like Hazel Scott, Big Joe Turner, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan. It also featured gospel groups, country-blues singers and boogie-woogie pianists. The club’s success prompted Josephson to open an uptown version in 1940 on East 58th Street.

Despite harassment from the government in ’47 when Josephson’s brother was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the club stayed true to its original leftist mission to present, entertain and educate: From 1947 to ’49, producer George Avakian taught New York University’s first jazz course there as part of the school’s extension division. By 1951, with Josephson suffering from ill health and business tapering off, Café Society held its farewell performance.

1940s

The Royal Roost

1580 Broadway (at 47th Street)

Peak years: 1946 to mid-’50s

In 1942, a new sound began to be heard in New York City: snappy, staccato phrasing, harmonic leaps and rhythmic elasticity all taken at a breakneck tempo that favored 8th notes (and sometimes 16th notes) for maximum effect. By 1944, this sound that defined a doorway into the modern era of jazz had its heroes—Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie—and a name: bebop.

Bebop filtered into the clubs on 52nd Street—Onyx Club, Three Deuces, the Famous Door and others—where swing-era veterans like Count Basie, Pee Wee Russell and Eddie Condon could also be heard. But as bebop gathered momentum, it lacked its own home. An enterprising ex-saxophonist named Ralph Watkins—whose efforts at opening a jazz room in a chicken restaurant on Broadway were off to a stumbling start—was convinced by publicist/producer Monte Kay and DJ “Symphony” Sid Torin to try booking the stars of this new modern sound.

On a Tuesday night in 1948, the Royal Roost presented its first modern-jazz concert, showcasing a young, all-star lineup: Parker, Tadd Dameron, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro and Max Roach. More than 500 fans showed up. Soon enough, the club adopted a second name, the Metropolitan Bopera House and proudly declared itself “The House That Bop Built.” With Symphony Sid pushing the concerts on his nightly radio program as well as broadcasting live from the venue, the Roost embraced its new focus.

In late ’48, the stars of bop settled into the Roost: Gillespie with his big band, Parker with a quintet featuring Davis and Roach. The club soon spawned a record label, and Dameron, Bud Powell, guitarist Johnny Smith and even Harry Belafonte recorded for Roost. (Music entrepreneur Morris Levy took note and a year later opened Birdland and started the Roulette label.)

In September 1948, Miles Davis debuted a new project at the Roost: a nine-piece group developed at rehearsals in arranger Gil Evans’ basement apartment. Years later, when the influence of Davis’ breakthrough band was fully felt, the music was dubbed “The Birth of the Cool” and there was one more reason to enter the Royal Roost into the history books.

By 1950, saddled with a new, strong-armed partner intent on retooling the Roost as a new version of the Cotton Club, Watkins departed to open Bop City, which, despite an impressive neon marquee and a Broadway address, was short-lived. As modern jazz sprinted into the ’50s, the Roost became a fast-fading memory.

1950s

The Five Spot

5 Cooper Square (near Astor Place)

Peak years: 1957 to 1962

The ’50s were about creative consolidation in jazz. A generation of bebop believers was distilling and expanding upon the lessons learned from Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. And then there were the iconoclasts, all so individual in their music that they defined their own distinct trends: Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and, by the end of the decade, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman.

In the other arts, the ’50s were as alive and expansive—a shared creative thrust was in the air in New York City. Beat literature was gaining ground and favor, as was abstract expressionism—“action painting”—and a new dramatic approach called method acting. If there was a crossroads where all the creative energy overlapped, where artists and writers met actors and musicians, and all listened to the newest of the new, it was a small storefront bar in the East Village.

Joe and Iggy Termini owned the joint and were inspired to buy a piano and begin booking bands after hearing the jam sessions at a customer’s loft. Less jazz-aware than simply hip to the need for a cultural center, the Termini brothers benefited from great timing. Their decision coincided with the return of Thelonious Monk’s cabaret card, originally lost in an effort to prevent a drug bust on Bud Powell. The reinstatement allowed the pianist to return to live performance in Manhattan, and through the club’s inaugural summer, Monk’s legendary quartet held forth with John Coltrane struggling to handle the changes.

Of course, Coltrane learned fast—and so did New York’s hipster scene. With no cover charge or minimum at the outset, the Five Spot was soon regularly packed (not difficult with a capacity of 75) and history was being made on a nightly basis. Over the next few years, the bar played host to an incredible array of talent, whether performing or just dropping by. It was possible to hear Allen Ginsberg or Kenneth Koch read poetry on one night and Lester Young play his saxophone the next while Mark Rothko and Norman Mailer sat in attendance.

In November 1959, the Five Spot earned enduring fame in the jazz annals when Ornette Coleman arrived from Los Angeles and turned the entire jazz world on its ear with an historic two-week run. Bassist Charlie Haden recalls peering from the bandstand to see every bassist of renown lined up at the bar to witness the event.

City renewal plans forced the original club to close in 1962; Mingus led the final performance. Though it soon reopened just a few blocks north (St. Marks and Third Avenue) and remained in business into the early ’70s, the Five Spot never regained its edgy stature. In Dan Wakefield’s anecdotal survey of the decade—New York in the ’50s—he describes a hierarchy of hip measured by the club one attended, and how the jazz-savvy worked their way up that ladder. The chapter title: “Graduating to the Five Spot.”

1960s

The Half Note

296 Spring Street (corner of Hudson Street)

Peak years: 1957 to 1972

Had Brooklyn-born Mike Canterino not served in the Navy down in Florida and befriended a local saxophonist named Cannonball Adderley, there’s a good chance the Half Note would never have opened. But it did, and despite the desolate location in New York City’s West Village, the club that had been a hard-drinking saloon dubbed the Zombie Bar was renamed and began booking jazz in 1957.

From the start it was a homegrown, family-run affair: Mike’s brother and father helped staff the Half Note, with “Pops” Canterino cooking Italian specialties in the kitchen. The bar’s two rooms, able to hold 120, received a makeover: LP covers and straw-covered wine bottles were affixed to the walls. An upright piano was brought in. A thin stage was created in an opening behind the bar so that patrons in both rooms could see and hear the band. The stage support was a nailed-together stack of wooden crates.

There were improvements along the way, of course. From the late ’50s through the ’60s, Canterino’s bookings revealed a catholic ear: swing-era stalwarts Budd Johnson and Buddy Tate, beboppers Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, avant-gardists John Coltrane and Charles Mingus, soul-jazz stars Wes Montgomery, Herbie Mann and Cannonball Adderley. Singers Anita O’Day, Billie Holiday and, one impromptu evening, Judy Garland also made appearances.

Two things were different at the Half Note. From the outset, Canterino intentionally integrated his lineups, pairing Jim Hall and Art Farmer, Bob Brookmeyer and Clark Terry. He was also one of the first to buck the industry’s 40-20 set-length standard (40 minutes on, 20 minutes off) by allowing musicians to play as long as they desired—often past the time his cabaret license permitted.

Veteran blowers like Ben Webster could play all night long—and did—while experimentalists like Coltrane used the Half Note as a workshop of sorts, turning tunes like the legendary “One Down, One Up” into marathon workouts.

Weekly radio broadcasts on New York’s WABC in the mid-’60s helped keep the crowds coming, but by 1972 Canterino decided to move to a more central location on West 54th Street. The best days were behind him. He took down the Half Note sign for good in 1975 and turned his attention to running Eddie Condon’s club across the street. 1970s

Bradley’s

70 University Place (at 11th Street)

Peak years: 1977 to 1988

The ’70s may have been the decade that saw the fruits of a tie-dyed revolution—a social unbuttoning, a more liberal outlook, rock music—integrated into the American mainstream, but jazz was not as fortunate. Though jazz remained as creative as ever, the music and its audience seemed hopelessly fractured. In New York City, fusion groups were playing rock clubs while avant-garde musicians were banding together to create their own scene in the lofts near Canal Street. Only a few clubs (like the Village Vanguard) soldiered on and survived the decade. Few could see the revival that lay ahead in the ’80s.

Bradley Cunningham was a jazz enthusiast who drifted into the New York scene from California. In 1969 he decided to swim against the tide of the times and open a piano bar in the area just north of New York University. It was a long, slow beginning, but he had help: Almost immediately a certain coterie of veterans began dropping by—Hank Jones, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Tommy Flanagan, Joanne Brackeen—as much to socialize as to play. Even the venerable Teddy Wilson made it a regular hang.

By the late ’70s, Bradley’s had become a wood-paneled postbop paradise at a time when postbop jazz was difficult to find. It was pulling in crowds and staying open late. Paul Desmond donated a grand piano, and almost any night a solid piano-and-bass duo would hold forth. The musicians’ names (Sir Roland Hanna, Kenny Barron, Kirk Lightsey, etc.) were listed on the chalkboard outside. Often, the late set became more of a jam session, as players fresh from gigs at Sweet Basil or Fat Tuesdays or the Vanguard sat in. In later years Cunningham made room for horn players (like George Coleman) and drummers (Art Blakey, for example.)

By the mid-’80s, recordings of performances by Bradley’s regulars were making it onto vinyl, and later CD, and The New York Times was calling the jazz saloon an “institution.”

Cunningham passed away in 1988. His wife, Wendy, kept the place open for another 10 years, much as Lorraine Gordon has kept the Vanguard rolling since her husband, Max, passed away in 1989. But by the mid-‘90s, rising rents and other costs forced Bradley’s to close its doors.

At a time when it was most needed, Bradley’s supplied the music, the libations and, most important, the camaraderie that is such a defining and necessary part of the jazz circle.

1980s

The Knitting Factory

47 East Houston Street (between Mulberry and Mott Streets)

Peak years: 1987 to 1994

Take a dilapidated Avon products building, create a quilt of old sweaters and let that be the basement ceiling, and serve juice on tables with lopped-off corners. That was the DIY spirit that gave birth to the Knitting Factory: a nightclub, a record label and a scene—but never a sound. For in its heyday, the Knit (as it was called) championed a wider variety of musical approaches, with jazz its main stem.

Musically, the ’80s were a glorious, post-modern, and post-punk mess. Old arguments about jazz (bebop vs. modal, acoustic vs. amplified, in vs. out) seemed…well, old. In New York City, a new generation of musicians, some schooled improvisers and many not, were into all styles, and were finding ways to fold rock, funk and other music into the mix. And they were looking for places to play.

In stepped Michael Dorf, a naïve 23-year old punk music fan from Wisconsin whose romantic notion of a jazz club was inspired by Kerouac’s On the Road. With partner Bob Appel, he opened the Knit on a forgotten corner of East Houston Street. He then met keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, through a Village Voice ad, who introduced the club owner to a circle of jazz-inspired performers (guitarist Fred Frith, saxophonists John Zorn and Jemeel Moondoc), while Dorf himself discovered more rock-oriented bands like the Indigo Girls, Sonic Youth and Ween.

Within months of the Knitting Factory opening in February 1987, all these groups had played the club, and it was on its way. The Knit’s weekly strip ad began to feature other names that came to lead and influence the creative music of the day: Bill Frisell (often with Joe Lovano and Paul Motian), Steve Coleman, Ikue Mori, Alva Rogers and the Jazz Passengers.

By 1990, many of these artists were featured on Knitting Factory CDs distributed by A&M, or featured on a Knitting Factory tour of the U.S. and Europe. By ’94, Dorf moved the Knit to a three-level location in Tribeca. By ’97, with the help of outside investment, it grew to include a full media company, a television series and, for a few years, production of the Bell Atlantic jazz festival. Then came 9/11.

With the World Trade Center having collapsed only a few blocks south, and with the club already in financial straits, certain investors chose to force a shift in the club’s musical direction in the hope of attracting a younger, more general audience below Canal Street.

At the Knit, jam stepped in, and jazz was out.

1990s

Smalls

183 W. 10th Street (corner of Seventh Avenue South)

Peak years: 1994 to 2003; 2005 and continuing

All the clubs discussed here stand out for the historic, era-shifting music they housed, and for the enterprising individuals who ran the clubs, dedicated to keeping jazz alive and presenting it live. Of course, this sort of history is littered with instances of club owners behaving badly. Yet there have often been the well-intentioned who assume financial risk, and even take on other projects (often a record label) to keep the musicians paid and their doors open.

Mitchell Borden, a hospital worker who founded Smalls just a few blocks south of the Vanguard in 1994, is one of the good guys.

For 10 years, Borden ran this sliver of a basement room (talk about an apt name) in the West Village. He returned to established jazz-club formula (a sound system used for minimal amplification; late, late sets for jam sessions) with a new twist: a BYOB policy that did away with the bar expense—as well as revenue. The accent was on intimacy and music was clearly the priority.

As with past clubs benefiting from such focus, an unseen need was filled and soon the lines of fans stretched outside, while a new coterie of musicians grew and gained recognition inside: guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, bassist Avishai Cohen, saxophonists Mark Turner and Zaid Nasser, pianists Sacha Perry and Jason Lindner (the latter’s big band is a Smalls favorite). Word spread and old-timers like Lou Donaldson, Tommy Turrentine and Frank Hewitt began coming around, sitting in and then headlining.

Borden had to close Smalls in 2003, having already opened a second club, Fat Cat, around the corner. While jazz fans kept returning looking for Smalls—and the Brazilian joint that replaced it failed—the new owner finally asked Borden to reopen.

In 2005 Borden did just that and now multitasks between two venues. In the new millennium, Smalls is one of the many, worthy venues in New York City where the torch of jazz burns nightly. It’s one hell of a legacy.

Originally published in September 2006

2 Comments

  • Jul 23, 2013 at 04:08PM Jos Van Dorresteijn

    Nice, informative article. I'm going to NYC shortly and am planning to check out a few of theses adresses. One thing strikes me though: Smalls is mentioned as the one surviving club. But shouldn't the Village Vanguard be in this list as well?

  • Jan 26, 2014 at 12:51PM nightnyc

    Grat article! Some of this clubs were unknown to me.

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