Get Funky at New York's Best Jazz & Blues Joints
By Emily Saladino
New York Local Expert
New Yorkers are a sentimental lot. No matter how good a city restaurant/theater/neighborhood/bus route is now, we 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 and Hong Kong, but, in the 1980s and '90s, it was home to hip hop legends like the Notorious B.I.G., ODB and Jay-Z. (And Jay now lives in TriBeCa, by the by.)
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 storied 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 in New York City now.
10 Blue Note
Is it pricey? Yes. Filled with nearly as many tourists as locals? Probably. Still, Blue Note deserves a spot on any jazz aficionado's list of NYC must-sees. From B.B. King to Roberta Flack to Cecil Taylor, generations of greats have graced Blue Note's considerable stage. Today, emerging up-and-comers like the Bad Plus play occasionally as well, bringing slightly younger crowds and fresh energy to the Greenwich Village venue. Blue Note also serves dinner nightly. While there are better meals to be had in the Village (i.e., low-key French boite Camaje and celebrity magnet Da Silvano down the block), there is something timeless about catching dinner and a show at the club. If you've got the cash (or the expense card), we say, give it a go. (212-475-8592)
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 Bill Charlap, Wynton Marsalis and Bill Charlap have all lit up the stage at Smoke. And the kitchen, helmed by executive chef Patricia Williams, 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. Bottoms up. (212-864-6662)
8 55 Bar
Blink and you might miss this subterranean club on a busy stretch of Christopher Street. Tucked between a bi-level cabaret bar and the historic Stonewall Inn, 55 Bar has charmingly tatty tables surrounding a tiny stage with some of the best jazz, funk and blues in Manhattan today. Since 1919, the prohibition-era boite has been serving up stiff drinks and cool tunes to a diverse cast of guitar heroes. Global musicians, students from the nearby NYU and New School campuses, and garrulous if grizzled neighborhood regulars come out to hear six-string strummers like Mike Stern, Hiram Bullock, Jim Campilongo and Adam Rogers. (212-929-9883)
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 counterargument. 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 -- expect to pay $10 or less. (347-422-0248)
6 Jazz Standard
What is it about jazz clubs and basement bars that goes 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)
5 Ginny's Supper Club
There was a time when New York's hottest jazz scene was entirely above 125th Street. The Harlem Renaissance, an enormously influential era of music, poetry and fine arts in the city's northern reaches, was highlighted by legendary jazz innovators like Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller. But as big band gave way to bebop and beyond, the majority of the city's jazz culture -- and venues -- moved downtown to Manhattan. Ginny's, a swinging spot in the basement of Michelin-starred chef Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster restaurant, is a breath of fresh air for Harlemites hungry for horns, bass and high hat. Afropop, gospel and jazz outfits rock the retro space, while a well-dressed crowd samples Samuelsson's award-winning, Southern-inflected fare. (212-421-3821)
4 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)
What's old is new again at this tiny West Village haunt. After serving the downtown jazz community for nearly 15 years, the beloved basement dive was forced to shutter in 2006, a casualty of the economic downturn surrounding New York City's smoking ban and 9/11. Fortunately, in 2006, owner Mitch Borden was able to reopen, much to the delight of displaced regulars. The cover charge was raised to a reasonable $20, the acoustics were improved, and stellar performers like Steve Davis, Seamus Blake, Bruce Barth, Bill Mobley and countless others have once again graced Smalls' intimate, no-longer-smoke-filled space. Welcome back, friends. (212-252-5091)
2 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)
1 Village Vanguard
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 Emily Saladino
Emily Saladino has spent over a decade eating her way through New York City. She has collaborated on cookbooks, developed original recipes and voyaged from Philadelphia to Papua New Guinea as a food and travel writer.
Read more about Emily Saladino here.