Jazz in New York City: An Insider’s Guide to the City’s Jazz Clubs
New York City’s jazz scene isn’t what it was five years ago.
It’s much better
In that time the Knitting Factory, once a zeitgeist-defining club, has mostly lost interest in the music in favor of alternative rock. But Jazz at Lincoln Center, once stuck with the compromises of Alice Tully Hall, unveiled posh new digs—and three new performance spaces—at Columbus Circle. Brooklyn exploded with at least a dozen new venues that regularly spotlight the borough’s wealth of strong talent. And on Avenue C, strident DIY-er John Zorn opened his own spot, the Stone, where musicians call the shots.
Here’s a quick rundown of 15 NYC jazz venues that should not be overlooked.
55 Christopher Street
One of the city’s great jazz basements, the 55 is sandwiched between what once was the Stonewall Inn, an iconic site in the gay-liberation movement, and the former Lion’s Head Tavern, a fabled literary hang back in the glory days of Pete Hamill and Lester Bangs. The 55 Bar’s own saga stretches to 1919, shortly after its original owner is said to have won the property in a card game on a steamer coming home from World War I. Guitarist Mike Stern seems to have been playing Mondays and Wednesdays ever since, and creative regulars (Ellery Eskelin, Chris Potter, Billy Bang) give the schedule an edge that’s worth the room’s tight squeeze. That the 55’s habitués have included both Cecil Taylor and Norah Jones says a lot about its pivotal role as a social magnet for musical insiders.
376 9th Street
Brooklyn’s booming jazz scene didn’t take off until after expatriate Frenchmen Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas opened this friendly bar and performance space in late 2001. The tiny back room, which holds about 40 people, has become a hub, tapping a local talent pool of world-class players, and hosting everything from bluegrass jams to surprise gigs by neighbors like Madeleine Peyroux and the novelist Paul Auster. Tuesdays belong to the raucous Slavic Soul Party, while “Night of the Ravished Limbs,” a new-music series, offers sizzling workshop performances on Wednesdays.
315 West 44th Street
Big-band music, long relegated to the endangered species list, thrives at this spacious venue in the theater district, which features everything from Ellington to Afro-Cuban. Not to be mistaken for the original Birdland, which was named for alto saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker and did business on 52nd Street between 1949 and 1965, this namesake has been in place since 1995. The dining room’s design makes for excellent sightlines to the stage, which often is occupied by poll-winning bandleaders like Dave Holland, Andrew Hill and Joe Lovano.
131 West 3rd Street
Perhaps the most touristy of the top NYC jazz venues, the Blue Note is also a vestige of a golden age in Greenwich Village nightlife. When it opened in 1982, culturally resonant clubs like Gerde’s Folk City, the Purple Onion, the Half Note, Visiones and the Village Gate were still in business. The fern-bar ambiance is deceptive, since this is the rare 200-head club where concert-hall regulars Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea still play, and where legends like Roy Haynes celebrate their 80th birthdays. The late-night-groove series is a must, drawing the kids with low cover charges for shows that feature more beat-driven jazz.
DIZZY’S CLUB COCA-COLA
Of all the $30-a-pop jazz clubs, Dizzy’s offers the most bang for your buck. The view alone is worth the admission, as high windows open out onto the glittering nightscape of Columbus Circle, calling to mind Berenice Abbott’s classic photographs of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. The curving wood panels, which define the interior of architect Rafael Vinoly’s design, give the 140-seat space the feel of a well-turned artisan bowl. Catch someone impeccable, like pianist Bill Charlap, or irreplaceable, like 88-year-old pianist Hank Jones, and your money will be well spent.
Don’t let the location fool you. Though it’s smack dab in the middle of Midtown’s tourist district, this upscale venue doesn’t compromise on its bookings. Guitar legend Les Paul, still vital at 90, holds court on Mondays, and hall-of-fame types from McCoy Tyner to Cecil Taylor enlist for multinight runs. For gourmandizers who enjoy teriyaki with their tone clusters, there’s a solid Asian fusion menu as well as high-end French wines by the glass.
116 East 27th Street
An upstart among “blue-chip” venues, the Standard does a few things differently than its competition, and it does all of them better. The cover charge sticks close to $15. The early show begins at 7:30 p.m. The management does not insist that patrons buy food or drink, though both are first-rate thanks to owner Danny Meyer, a superstar chef whose barbecue restaurant Blue Smoke occupies the upstairs. Musicians love to play here because they are treated well. And the bookings are thoughtful and diverse, often courting of-the-moment outfits like E.S.T. and hosting special events like the Festival of New Trumpet Music. Grab one of the cushy red booths if you can, and don’t sleep on the pulled pork.
JIMMY’S NO. 43
43 East 7th Street
Nestled along a popular row of drinking establishments that include the legendary McSorley’s, this shrine to Belgian beer has become an unlikely platform for some of the city’s most adventurous jazz. Promoter Dee Pop, once drummer for the 1980s punk-funk outfit the Bush Tetras, runs his Freestyle Jazz Medicine Show here every Sunday. The restaurant’s back room holds about 45 people for sets by red-hot rising talents (like drummer Tyshawn Sorey), established vets (guitarist John Abercrombie) and Pop’s own outfit, Radio I-Ching. The stuffed deer head gazing from the wall, along with the high-end beer, gives it the vibe of an Elk’s Club gone avant-garde.
425 Lafayette Street
Jazz acts are occasional at this showcase venue, a musical boutique where name artists of sophisticated appeal (David Byrne, Youssou N’Dour, Nellie McKay) settle in for residencies or do special one-off shows for an intimate audience. Seating is limited to 150, so SRO shows are a constant. The plush lounge seating, TV-studio lighting and belfry-high ceilings give the two-tiered venue an air of luxury that makes any visit a pleasure.
66 Park Avenue
One of the better-kept secrets on New York’s jazz circuit, the upstairs bar in this elegant Japanese hotel hosts piano-driven combos Wednesday through Sunday nights. Whether the groups are led by young bucks (like tenorist Donny McCaslin) or venerable elders (like bassist Cecil McBee), it’s the intimacy that compels a visit. It’s possible to sit nearly elbow-to-elbow with the piano player, a luxury that gives performances a rare immediacy hard to come by in all but a few venues. Shows are often free with a drink minimum, and the club is well worth a short walk off the beaten path.
288 Lenox Avenue
Back in the day, Billie Holiday and Malcolm X clocked quality time in the Zebra Room, the music lounge within this art-deco showpiece of a Harlem nightclub. Since 2000, when a half-million dollar renovation restored the Lenox to its 1940s splendor, the celebrities have included Bill Clinton and Samuel L. Jackson. The best night for jazz is Monday, when neighborhood mainstay Patience Higgins leads his Sugar Hill Quartet, lacing hard-bop favorites with hilarious improvised banter.
183 West 10th Street
Closed in 2003 after a decade, the much-loved Smalls opened early this year in a spiffier 2.0 version. It still represents the hardcore-jazz-fan’s dream of gritty authenticity. The venue, around the corner from the Village Vanguard, is genuinely small, a 60-seat club sandwiched into a basement where the audience sits almost on top of the musicians. It’s cheap ($10 cover, plus drink minimum, a concession to economic necessity). There are no longer the marathon jams that made Smalls famous. However, the bookings continue to tap into the now-established pool of promising young talents that made the venue’s reputation in the 1990s: Omer Avital, Jason Lindner, Avishai Cohen and Sam Yahel, among others. Listen hard when the room grows quiet and you might hear some psychedelic echoes: Jimi Hendrix played here in the 1960s when the space was known as the Café Wha?
No one smokes at Smoke anymore, except on the bandstand when they light into a fiery solo. But that legal concession aside, the ambiance at this Upper West Side standby feels as close to an old-school jazz haunt as anyone could now imagine. The Steinway grand piano sounds as clear from the far end of the bar as it does at one of the tables nestled at the lip of the stage. And the décor suggests an agreeably distressed bordello—burgundy velvet drapes, a handcrafted banquette whose cushions whisper of date-night indulgence—making it easy to forget this is postmillennial Manhattan. Tenorist George Coleman is one of the notables who frequent the bandstand, and there’s a Hammond B3 organ night for groove addicts.
2nd Street at Avenue C
Downtown icon John Zorn opened this nonprofit space in 2005, renovating the burned-out shell of a former Chinese takeout joint. He named the new venue after the late Irving Stone, a benefactor of jazz musicians and a regular at the old Knitting Factory and Tonic throughout the ’90s. With its spare décor, short rows of plastic chairs and conspicuous absence of cash registers, food or drink, the Stone makes a virtue of its asceticism: It’s all about the music. Stars of the global improv scene populate the artist-curated calendar, which skews toward novel combinations of players and themed tributes to departed heroes like Don Cherry and Derek Bailey.
178 Seventh Avenue South
Every jazz great, or wannabe jazz great, has to record at least one album live at the Village Vanguard. It’s the holiest of holies, and as emblematic of Manhattan as the pizza slice called to mind by the sharply angled basement it’s occupied since 1935. The Vanguard didn’t become a jazz club until the 1950s, when owner Max Gordon began championing the music’s future pantheon (Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, Rollins and so on). His widow, Lorraine, has carried that spirit into the 21st century, balancing tradition (the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra) with newer waves (the Bad Plus, Dave Douglas, Jason Moran). “It’s a place where jazz feels at home,” says the tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, who recorded Lift: Live at the Village Vanguard there in 2003. “The sound has a lot to do with it. It’s kind of funky, and has lots of weird inflections. It sounds like you’re in someone’s living room.”
Originally published in September 2006