New York City Is A Jazz Town
Though music historians trace the roots of jazz to Congo Square in New Orleans, many others would say that New York has contributed more to its evolution than any other city. In fact, the features that characterize jazz also define the Big Apple—there’s a syncopated rhythm, the endless improvisation, consistent change, and a willingness to borrow from numerous genres and cultures.
Over the last century, musical masterminds with names like Duke, Dizzy, and Miles—among many others—have made New York City home. It was here that they honed their craft and found inspiration in basement bars and lounges tucked along seldom-trafficked side streets. Today, those shrines play host to a new generation of jazz masters. Here are our picks for the city’s jazz clubs that can’t be missed.
In 2006, the jazz legend Bill Saxton decided to rejuvenate a historic landmark. Back in the day, Swing Street (located on 133rd St. in Harlem, between Lenox and Seventh Avenue) was an after-hours hangout for Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Moms Mabley, and Langston Hughes, among others. It was also where the talent agent John Hammond discovered 18-year-old Billie Holiday in 1933. More recently, Saxton reopened it as Bill’s Place. He performs there with his band on Friday and Saturday nights, entertaining a packed house of eclectic music lovers.
Jazz turned to blues in 1996 when Augie’s, a popular Upper West Side jazz club, closed its doors due to unpaid taxes. Fortunately, Paul Stache and Frank J. Christopher swooped in and converted the space into Smoke Jazz Club, a music venue that was heralded as one of the city’s best new jazz clubs in 2000. Where Smoke thrives is in its ability to be both a world-class jazz venue and a comfortable, living room–like retreat. The club hosts dinner sets and non-dinner sets, but you’ll be hard-pressed to resist ordering from a menu that includes cedar-plank steaks, Maryland soft-shell crab sandwiches, and lamb sliders.
Legendary may be the only way to describe the Village Vanguard on Seventh Avenue South. Since the nightclub converted to a jazz-only scene in 1957, it has served as a destination for greatness—Thelonious Monk’s career was spawned there, and it was there that John Coltrane and Bill Evans both recorded highly successful live albums. Walking through the Vanguard’s wooden double doors is like walking into an old place of worship; the vibes that have been laid down in the Vanguard continue to linger like an additional member of the audience.
Since opening its doors in 1981, Blue Note on West Third Street in Greenwich Village has served as a marquee destination for jazz’s latest and greatest. The blue-lit backdrop on stage sets the tone for each night’s performances. The club often gets a bad rap for being a little stodgy, tourist focused, and expensive, but it silences most critics with dependable service, quality beverages, and a headliner-packed calendar that features living legends such as Chris Botti and Dave Brubeck.
Named after its former headliner Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Birdland is located on West 44th Street, not far from what was once the center of jazz performance during the 1930s and ʼ40s. The club was founded in 1949, and though its location has changed a few times, it still delivers an ambience of cool—the type enjoyed by the club’s early clientele, which included Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Sugar Ray Robinson.