While jazz wasn’t born here, over the years New York has undoubtedly become an epicenter for this musical style, as much a part of jazz’s history (and future) as horns and drums. Today the city boasts an impressive array of jazz clubs, from tiny spots to auditorium-like spaces, which means you can hear something amazing every night of the week. Here are our six favorites. By Jessica Allen.
American Legion Post 398
248 West 132nd Street
New York, NY 10027
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What American Legion Post 238 perhaps lacks in glamour, it most definitely makes up for in heart and soul. For over a decade, Seleno Clarke—sometimes called the “Jazz Ambassador of Harlem”—has led a rotating crew of musicians in a mega-jam session every Sunday. No minimums and no cover. “My total objective is to bring together the young people and the older people in the music,” he told the New York Times in 2003. “People from all over the world come here to play and network and get that Harlem vibe.”
148 West 133rd Street
New York, NY 10030
When saxophonist Bill Saxton describes his style of music as “‘in your face’ outrageous jazz,” he’s not speaking metaphorically. Bill’s Place is a tiny speakeasy with a huge history. As you listen to Saxton and friends playing straight-ahead jazz on Fridays and Saturdays, you’ll bump elbows with fellow guests just like patrons did way back when, as a young Billie Holiday or Fats Waller took the stage. Make a reservation, then head uptown for an unforgettable evening. Note: no alcohol allowed or served.
Jazz at Lincoln Center
Frederick P. Rose Hall
Broadway at 60th Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10019
OK, so this isn’t a club, per se, but rather a bunch of venues and organizations at Lincoln Center. The folks here believe that “Jazz is a metaphor for Democracy,” given its history, emphasis on individual expression, and its roots in the blues. The in-house orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis is pretty great, and pretty much any musician worth her reed does a set or two at Rose Hall when in town. If your taste tends toward legends and maestros, check the schedule and book your tickets now.
18 Whitwell Place
Brooklyn, NY 11215
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ShapeShifter Lab makes the cut for us because of its emphasis on experimental musical collaborations. If you believe there’s nothing new under the sun, or if you subscribe to the idea that the best has already happened, head here for a night that just might change your mind and pleasure your ears.
Smalls Jazz Club
183 W 10th Street
New York, NY 10014
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Smalls harks back to an earlier era, when people crowded into smoky basements to hear the latest, hottest tunes, rather than clicking “like” on Facebook. Not that this venerable club is afraid of technology: more than 11,000 recordings have been made of sets played here, available on the website. At any rate, Smalls prides itself on finding up-and-comers and doing whatever it can to support jazz culture. A double-sawbuck gets you admission for the entire evening, Sundays through Thursdays (tickets are a bit more expensive on weekends). And be sure to check out Mezzrow, its sister club, across the street.
178 Seventh Avenue
New York, NY 10014
An oldie but a goodie. For some 80 years, the Village Vanguard has been where to go to hear the world’s best jazz musicians. Among the notables who’ve trod its well-worn boards are Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Harry Belafonte, and Eartha Kitt. Run by Lorraine Gordon, the widow of Max Gordon, who opened the club in 1935, Village Vanguard gives performers multi-night bookings — all the better to help them get into the groove. There are two sets a night, and seating is first come, first serve.
Jessica Allen is a New York-based writer.