NYC JAZZ CLUBS TO KNOW, ACCORDING TO MUSICIAN KEN FOWSER
Ever since the swing era of the 1920s, New York City has been widely regarded as the best place in the world for jazz. Every significant jazz musician—legends such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk—have all lived and created music for extended periods of time in this city. The tradition continues today, as jazz musicians from all over the world, both young and old, continue to flock to New York City and surround themselves with like-minded talent. The result is improvised musical conversations on the highest level that can be achieved only in The Big Apple. As a jazz tenor saxophonist living, performing, and listening in this amazing city for the past 12 years, I’ve discovered some great spots to hear live music. Here is a list of some of my favorite jazz clubs to check out south of 42nd Street.
Opened in the early ’90s, Smalls is a jazz club owned and run by musicians for musicians. On any given night, you can witness three bands, beginning around 7pm and ending around 4am I particularly recommend the late-night hang. Every night around 1am there is a jam session, seven nights a week. You never know who you may hear, anyone from trumpeter Roy Hargrove to some of NYC’s top young emerging talent. Smalls is, for lack of a better word, small, and it doesn’t take reservations. Be sure to check its website and arrive a half hour before the set to grab a decent seat. A $20 cover charge gets you entry plus a ticket to Smalls’s sister club, Mezzrow, located just across the street.
183 W 10th St, New York, NY 10014; T. 646 476-4346
Even smaller than Smalls, Mezzrow is one of the West Village’s newest clubs. Modeled after a club called Bradley’s, Mezzrow primarily features some of New York City’s best piano players in duo or trio situations. Amazing natural acoustics and close seating to the musicians provide a truly unique listening experience. They even spin classic vinyl jazz records on the breaks.
163 W 10th St, New York, NY 10014; T. 646 476-4346
Originally opened in 1935, the Vanguard is one of the oldest jazz clubs in the city, and one of the most iconic music institutions in the world. Jazz legends such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Bill Evans, to name just a few, have made this space somewhat hallowed musical ground for jazz fans and musicians alike. It’s also the only music venue to offer weeklong engagements to its artists, Tuesday through Sunday. If you like big bands, I highly recommend the Village Vanguard Big Band, which performs every Monday night.
178 7th Ave S, New York, NY 10014; T. 212 255-4037
Located under Blue Smoke, a barbecue restaurant on East 27th Street, the Jazz Standard serves up some of the best jazz acts around today. The music ranges from classic straight-ahead to modern and contemporary jazz acts. Attention to detail with its artists and sound system provide an incredible musical listening experience. I recommend checking out the Mingus Big Band on Mondays, as well as their pulled-pork sandwich with house-made barbecue sauce!
116 E 27th St, New York, NY 10016; T. 212 576-2232
Another tiny West Village basement pseudo-dive bar with character, the lineups here are slightly more modern. With a house Fender Rhodes piano, you are more likely to hear a fusion of different improvised musical genres. Definitely a cool spot to check out if you’re looking to hear something a bit different.
55 Christopher St, New York, NY 10014; T. 212 929-9883
A great spot to experience a variety of different jazz and other musical genres, Zinc welcomes everything from bands that fuse jazz with hip-hop, to classic Cuban and Brazilian music. The space itself is that of an older underground speakeasy, with a long bar and more formal seating closer to the stage. I recommend the jam sessions on Tuesday nights. It’s a blend of live jazz with a different musician playing DJ sets in between, culminating in an open jam session at the end.
82 W 3rd St, New York, NY 10012; T. 212 477-9462
Located on the lower level of the Roxy Hotel, the Django is quickly making a name for itself as one of the top venues in New York to hear live music. Upon entering, you may wonder if you’ve suddenly been transported to a cave-like underground speakeasy in Europe circa 1930. Beautiful ambience with amazing cocktails and delicious food only add to the musical experience. While focusing mostly on jazz, the Django also incorporates other genres such as blues, soul, and Latin music. In one night, you could be listening to Miles Davis’s alumni Jimmy Cobb taking a masterful drum solo, only to stick around for the next set and hear Questlove sitting in on a tune with fellow Roots band members in a soul-jazz setting. The Django is full of surprises.
The Roxy Hotel, 2 6th Ave, New York, NY 10013; T. 212 519-6649
Words Ken Fowser