Jazz: the quintessential American art form. Invented in the red light district of New Orleans at the turn of the 19th century, jazz was born of a mix of African and European music traditions. With its infusion of democracy, individuality and freedom of expression, it exemplifies the American experience.
It is difficult to pin down exactly what jazz is, but perhaps a broad explanation will have to suffice – jazz critic Joachim Berendt defines it as a “form of art music which originated in the United States through the confrontation of blacks with European music.”
That doesn’t say much about what it is like to experience the phenomenon of jazz. To understand what jazz is it must be heard and seen live, with the horns blowing in your face and your foot tapping the floor. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, jazz can be heard in thousands of clubs around the world, but what better place to experience it than in the land of its birth? Here are eight of America’s coolest jazz clubs to get you started.
Blue Note Jazz Club, New York
In music lexicon, a “blue note” is an expressive, micro-tonal flattening of pitch used in blues and jazz, but the name has also been used for a number of famous jazz joints, including the current Blue Note in New York City.
During the 1940s and 50s, Chicago’s premier jazz club was called the Blue Note, while another famous Blue Note thrived in Paris during the 1950s and 60s. The extant one in New York, however, was opened in 1981 and has since become the world’s only franchised jazz club network, with three franchises in Japan and plans for future locations in Seoul, Las Vegas and San Francisco.
The club lacks a long and distinguished history and is considered by many to be an overpriced tourist trap, but it can afford the fees of such greats as Herbie Hancock, Cassandra Wilson, McCoy Tyner and other living legends, and is usually packed full. The admission price is heavy (it tends to be the highest of the major New York and Harlem jazz clubs), but worth it if you want to experience big name jazz musicians in a small club atmosphere.
The Green Mill, Chicago
The Green Mill is a club whose history permeates the atmosphere. The worn green velvet booths, the bizarre pastoral murals above, Al Capone’s framed portrait staring from behind the bar, the bullet holes in the walls — reminders of the Green Mill’s bygone era are everywhere.
Named after the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris (though substituting ‘Green’ for ‘Red’) the club began operation in 1910. During the Prohibition era it was run by Machine Gun Jack McGurn, Al Capone‘s right hand man. Because mobsters were some of its most frequent customers and police raids were common, the club had a trap door, now used for deliveries, which allowed a quick escape via a series of underground tunnels.
The Jazz Showcase is widely regarded as Chicago’s most important jazz club, but the Green Mill has been undergoing a revival over the past few years, with attempts to restore some of its old splendor. Admission remains a modest seven dollars.
Preservation Hall, New Orleans
The Preservation Hall, in the heart of the French Quarter, is a New Orleans institution. It is housed in a nondescript two-story house on St. Peter Street, around the corner from Bourbon Street, with the humid, cramped, dingy but beautiful double parlor, with its incongruous furniture and loose floor boards, serving as the music hall. Since the 1960s it has been a cynosure for some of the greatest music in New Orleans.
The club was originally designed as an art gallery where veteran jazz musicians, many of them poor and unemployed, would play for tips. Eventually the music eclipsed the art. Since then, as its name suggests, the preservation Hall has dedicated itself to the preservation of New Orleans-style jazz.
No food or drink is served at the Preservation Hall, and seats are available on a first-come, first-serve basis, meaning you may have to sit on the floor — as President Jimmy Carter did when he came in 1984.
Doors open at 8:00 pm and the cost is $15 for all ages.
Yoshi’s is a unique club, combining a great sushi restaurant with intimate jazz performances in the attached studio. It began in 1972 in North Berkeley, as a small sushi bar owned by three students. In 1977 the restaurant moved to Oakland and began to introduce the live music element. Over the next 20 years, Yoshi’s built itself into one of the world’s most respected jazz venues, hosting legendary musicians such as Betty Carter, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Diana Krall, Branford Marsalis, and hundreds of others.
The sound system and acoustics are excellent, and with its corner stage and tables fanning out on tiered levels, there isn’t a bad seat in the house for live music every night of the week.
Elephant Room, Austin
Housed in the basement of an old building off South Congress, the Elephant Room is a funky little place that has the vibe of a Prohibition-era speakeasy. It is probably the most dimly-lit bar in Austin, and the space is awkwardly long and narrow, and it’s sometimes difficult to find a seat, especially if you want to be near the performers, but it’s still, without a doubt, the best jazz joint in the city.
The college crowd brings a lot of youthful energy to the scene and they’ve got a great selection of beer on tap for $4.50 for a pint, with local beer from Live Oak Brewing Company. They don’t serve any food, but the surrounding area has plenty of great restaurants.
Though there are some other great spots in Austin that feature jazz, such as Vino Vino and Apple Annie’s, none consistently bring in the level of talent that Elephant Room has to offer. Most Friday nights they feature Latin jazz, and on week nights there’s no cover. Just try to get there early if you’d like to have a good place to sit before the music starts — usually around 9:30.
Village Vanguard, New York
The Village Vanguard is a windowless basement room, known for its steep, rubicund stairwell, and like The Green Mill, it has a long and distinguished history. This is evidenced in the photographs and sacred objects (such as Jabbo Smith’s helicon) that hang all over the walls. The atmosphere is electrifying.
Before opening as the Vanguard in 1935, the space served a speakeasy during Prohibition. In addition to jazz, it offered poetry readings, comedy, cabaret and folk musicians, but in 1957 switched to an all-jazz policy. Since then it has hosted some of the biggest names in jazz, including Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Dinah Washington, Horace Silver and Cecil Taylor, as well as countless others.
Numerous live recordings have also taken place at the Vanguard. Among the most famous are Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard and John Coltrane’s Live at the Village Vanguard.
Blues Alley, Washington, D.C.
Blues Alley is an elegant and intimate club, with its small, somewhat cramped tables enclaving the stage. It attracts a substantial international crowd, where on any given night you might rub shoulders with senators, activists, foreign diplomats and jazz enthusiast from around the world.
It is a staple of the Washington, D.C. music scene, and serves up some excellent Creole cuisine, much of which has been named after musicians who’ve performed here, including Stanley Turrentine’s Crab Cakes and McCoy Tyner’s Reddened Fish. On the whole it’s pretty moderately priced for decent night out in the nation’s capital.
El Chapultepec, Denver
El Chapultepec in Denver has got to be one of the coolest dive bars of all time. Located in an old warehouse district one block from Coors Field, it’s a true neighborhood jazz club, with cheap beer, scrumptious burritos, hip clientele and a hole-in-the-wall vibe. The acts here are top notch, and some pretty big names have been featured on the booking list.
Its name and three-item menu reflect the club’s original clientele: Mexico migrants who once came to Denver looking for work in the nearby mines. There’s no cover charge, no dancing, and no credit cards. It survives quite simply by being wonderfully divey and cool.
- David Joshua Jennings