Calling All Cool Cats at New York's Best Jazz and Blues Clubs
By Courtney Sunday
New York and Toronto Local Expert
New Yorkers are a sentimental bunch. No matter how good a city restaurant/theater/neighborhood/bus route is now, people love to lament that it used to be better. Manhattan's West Village currently lays claim to some of the best restaurants in the country, but, in the 1960s, it had Bob Dylan, thank you very much. And Brooklyn's influential aesthetic now imports Edison lightbulbs and Mason jar chic to Paris, but, in the 1980s and '90s, it was home to hip hop legends like the Notorious B.I.G., ODB and Jay-Z. (Jay now lives in TriBEca with the lovely Miss Beyonce.)
This tireless self-examination naturally extends itself to the world of jazz. Granted, New York jazz history is solid: the Harlem Renaissance introduced the world to musical legends like Fats Waller and Duke Ellington, and Manhattan's bop and bebop revolution brought out-of-towners like John Coltrane and Miles Davis to the city's well-seasoned stages. As a result, contemporary fans worry that they missed the boat, and the golden age of New York City jazz is behind them.
So what's the modern bass and brass enthusiast to do? Ignore the hoopla, and hit the streets. These days, New York's jazz scene ranges from living legends playing sold-out sets in Greenwich Village landmarks like the Village Vanguard, to globetrotting grooves in tiny cafes like Brooklyn's Barbes. Know your history, but don't get lost in the past. Here are 10 spots to hear jazz and blues in New York City -- today.
Paris Blues Jazz Club
You have to respect a bar that unapologetically calls itself a "dive." Although there often isn't a cover at Paris Blues and it embraces the dive bar label, it is dedicated to world class music at a fair price. The decor is reminiscent of New Orleans with masks and a confident use of color. Expect live acts every night of the week. Open since 1969, it has a raw atmosphere that is all about the music, which often plays from 9pm to 1am. Some audience members bring instruments for an impromptu jazz session. Less musically gifted patrons cut a rug on the small dance floor. (917-257-7831)
Iridium Jazz Club
Let's start with the good news. The Iridium has hosted some of the world's greatest jazz talent, including the legendary late guitarist Les Paul. These days, emerging and established artists are a pinnacle of Keystone Korner Nights, hosted by San Francisco's Todd Barkan. He brings in top-tier performers like Ginger Baker, Mitch Winehouse, Jimmy Cobb and Ulysses Owens to play for in-the-know crowds of friendly fans. On the flip side, a night at the Iridium is an expensive endeavor. Cover charges can reach $40, and that's not taking into account the $15 per person food and drink minimum. But, so long as you plan to make a night of it, Iridium is still worth its weight in gold records. (212-582-2121)
Terra Blues sits between LaGuardia and Thompson, right in the heart of the West Village. This small 20-year-old blues lounge attracts a more well-heeled crowd than most of its counterparts, which is due in part to its romantic, almost adult atmosphere. Enjoy the soulful sounds of traditional blues performers and some of the best singers and performers in the world. Doors open at 6:30pm with solo acoustic acts performing nightly from 7 to 9:30pm. After 10, the band plugs in, and may play until the wee hours of the morning. Indulge in a well-aged scotch or bourbon and savor the chord progression that is characteristic of an amazing blues session. (212-777-7776)
This tiny venue is a standout name in big-name jazz. Many of the greats have graced the stage of Blue Note at some point in their illustrious careers -- from B.B. King and Roberta Flack to Manhattan Transfer and Spyro Gyra. Hazy blue light colors the air, allowing for a romantic and transformative musical experience. The tickets for the top-name performers do run steep at this Greenwich Village landmark, but is that surprising? Dinner is served nightly before the show, making this an impressive place to take a client or a date. Nosh on a cheese plate and wine while you get delightfully cozy. (212-475-8592)
Park Slope is not the first place one thinks of for killer live music. This leafy Brooklyn neighborhood is better known for $2,000 baby strollers and a celebrity-studded food co-op than cutting edge jazz and funk outfits. But Barbes, an intimate spot in South Slope, presents a strong counter-argument. Run by two French ex-pats with a taste for globetrotting jams, the acts at this welcoming, cafe-style space range from Romanian big band, to Venezuelan joropas, to Portuguese-accented bossa nova. Cover charges vary based on the act, but tend to be on the low side for a New York venue: potentially $10 or less. (347-422-0248)
What is it about jazz clubs and basement bars that fits so well together? This stylish spot, situated in a subterranean space on a side street in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, hosts classic jazz acts as well as blues, R&B and funk outfits. Some recent boldfaced names filling seats in the speakeasy-style space include Bill Frisell and Jimmy Cobb, and Mingus Big Band, a 10-piece act, has a residency on-site. Cover charges vary based on nightly act, and can fall anywhere between $20 and $40. Fortunately, though, there is no drink minimum, so budget-conscious music fans can just sit back and enjoy the show. (212-576-2232)
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Want to grab dinner in a buzzy basement boite? Take in incredible views of Central Park at night? Or hear live performances hand-picked by one of the greatest jazz trumpeters alive today? Look no further. Jazz at Lincoln Center is your one-stop shop for all things swank, sleek and swingin'. The venue includes the glamorous Allen Room, a windowed space overlooking Central Park and modeled after a Greek amphitheater, as well as the 1200-seat Rose Theater, which sits five stories above Columbus Circle. Both host events and artists selected by artistic director Wynton Marsalis, such as the prestigious John Coltrane Festival. Wash it all down with a tipple or two at Dizzy's Club at Coca Cola, the hip subterranean restaurant with a Southern-style menu. ((212) 721-6500)
Smoke Jazz and Supper Club
Straight out of Central Casting, this intimate Upper West Side club has tiny tables, candlelit banquettes, and a moody atmosphere. Reservations are 100% necessary, as big-name performers belie the small space; the likes of pianist Bill Charlap and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. All performers have the star power that lights up the stage. The kitchen is helmed by executive chef Patricia Williams and gives this jazz joint a leg up on the competition. With house favorites like buttermilk-battered fried chicken, grilled Brussels sprouts with piquillo pepper sauce, and dark-and-stormy-soaked short ribs, hungry patrons will have no problem meeting the food/drink minimum, which varies by performance but can reach $20/person. (212-864-6662)
B.B. King's Blues Club & Grille
Named after the celebrated "king of the blues" B.B. King Blues Club opened in 2000 (and yes, B.B. did perform here). Ideally situated in bustling Times Square, this space hosts musical talent from blues, jazz, and hip-hop to funk, blue grass and even heavy metal. Some of the legends that have graced the stage are Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Alicia Keys, The Allman Brothers, Gipsy Kings, ZZ Top, and Jay Z. There is clear viewing access to the performance while guests are enjoying food and drinks or dancing. Seating is on a first come, first served basis. The dim lighting sets the mood for a night out listening to moody music. You can catch some light with the cursive "B.B. King" lit up above the long bar. Lucille's Grill is a bar located within the B.B. King Blue's Club and was named after the late B.B.'s beloved guitar. (212-997-4144)
Locals love it. Travelers seek it out. Musicians of all ages long to play its illustrious stage. Referred to as the Carnegie Hall of Jazz, the Village Vanguard has served as an industry institution for nearly 80 years, hosting such luminaries as Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Want to hear history in the making? Arrive at its brightly illuminated entrance on 7th Avenue South, and then head downstairs to the charmingly low-lit space. The intimate table arrangements are filled with knowledgeable patrons, industry insiders and the occasional casual listener with a taste for bass and brass. Grab a cocktail, turn off your phone (please), and get ready for a night of pure, moody magic. (212-255-4037)
About Courtney Sunday
Courtney Sunday lived in Canterbury, England and Luzern, Switzerland before returning to Toronto in 2010. Yoga teaching and freelance writing became her full-time professions, as she learned the true meaning of the statement: "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." Courtney now divides her time between Philadelphia and Toronto. She loves the cafe culture of both cities and the ever-expanding group of foodies. When not leading small yoga teacher trainings around the globe she explores her cities by foot: www.courtneysunday.com, @Omathomeyoga.
Read more about Courtney Sunday here.