NEW YORK HAS BEEN the jazz capital of the world ever since bebop took over 52nd Street and Harlem in the 40’s and 50’s. Young musicians playing electric or acoustic, standards or free form, have been inexorably drawn here in search of inspiration and work.
I am a guitarist and composer of eclectic tastes and have been writing and performing since the 1980’s. I moved to New York in the late 1990’s, having felt that I’d hit a glass ceiling in Berkeley, CA. I fell immediately in love with the city, and spent much of my first year immersing myself in the minutiae of the scene. Since then I’ve led over 10 different ensembles of varying size and style, searching for ways to integrate all manner of different sounds into jazz, whether country, East Indian, rock, or classical.
Some of the Manhattan clubs that originally drew me in — The Knitting Factory, Tonic, The Internet Café — no longer exist. Clubs open and close all the time here, often falling victim to high real estate prices or blessedly utopian ideals. All aspects of doing business in New York are tough; you have to have a thick skin and always be ready with a back up plan.
Still, there are many new clubs and old stalwarts that have survived. While some of the marquee names like the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note are well known to tourists, there are a host of other venues that are off the grid, where musicians hang out, where the music is being shaped and honed and made new. You can find something great happening every day of the week.
For a couple of years now the Jazz Standard has hosted the Charles Mingus Big Band on Monday nights. This repertory band, which has been playing new arrangements of his iconic works since the 90’s, is high art and great entertainment combined.
It’s bluesy, soulful, swinging, and yet retains the modernity, the kick and bite that defined Charles Mingus. Plus, the food — a Danny Meyer ribs-based creation called Blue Smoke — is great. Two sets at 7:30 and 9:30. Make sure to reserve in advance as it always sells out.
Brooklyn is home to virtually every jazz musician these days. We’ve taken over! Yet, there is still no major club, like the Jazz Standard, that has emerged in this borough. One of the reasons is that you, the beloved tourist, rarely venture outside Manhattan.
Know this: Most of Brooklyn is extremely safe and entirely accessible by subway. There is a trove of venues for music lovers. Korzo, an Eastern European restaurant in “South Slope”, is just such a place. Once a week pianist James Carney books two bands in the back room, and the music is always modern and vital. Here is where you will see the new faces of jazz, creating bracing, fresh, all-original music. Two sets at 8:30 and 10:00 pm.
Just down the street from Korzo is a tiny spot called Barbes that has built a big reputation. The back room of this bar holds no more than 25 people, and yet amazing bands perform there throughout the week.
Many of them are based more in African, Balkan, or Gypsy music; but on Wednesdays there is a jazz series currently booked by bassist Oscar Noriega that shows off the most cutting edge bands in town. Don’t expect to hear any bebop! This music will careen from free form to odd times, to post- everything funk.
Brooklyn again! The Firehouse Space is everything I love about Brooklyn. This brand new place is a converted firehouse that specializes in all things cutting-edge.
Jazz groups make up about a third of the concerts, and Thursday nights drummer Satoshi Takeishi curates the “Bark and Scream” series. This venue is a little tougher to get to, and the neighborhood is a little run down, but it’s worth it! Remember, jazz was created in neighborhoods like these.
Let’s stay one more night in Brooklyn. There are two places I heartily recommend. Both are new to what is being called the “arts corridor” of downtown Brooklyn. Roulette is a venerable institution that has survived for over 25 years, first in Soho, and now in a beautiful renovated space near BAM, just three blocks from the new basketball stadium. Like many adventurous venues it does more than jazz — all manner of experimental happenings takes place there, a feast of creativity, manna for the open mind.
After a set at Roulette, you can walk about six blocks down 3rd Ave. to a brand new loft-like space opened by Matt Garrison, son of famed bassist Jimmy Garrison who played with John Coltrane’s quartet. The Shapeshifter Lab is poised to become an important home for all kinds of improvisation, whether fusion, big band, world music, or straight ahead.
We’ve emphasized the new sounds emerging from Brooklyn, but let’s not forget the gold standard, the grand lady of all New York venues, the illustrious Village Vanguard. Everyone who ever made a name in jazz has graced these doors. It’s a humble spot, perfect in size, shoe-horned into a basement.
If your tastes are more mainstream you can’t go wrong here. Just sit and stare at the walls, which are adorned with pictures of the greatest names in jazz, all of whom were regulars here. If it’s not too late, head over to the 55 Bar, just a few blocks south for a late set. The 55 is one of Manhattan’s treasures, a perfectly funky, small room where a plenitude of amazing bands has held forth since the 80’s.
Smalls established itself in the early 90’s as a place where more mainstream players could find a home. It was, and still is, grassroots all the way. This is the spot where people like Brad Melhdau and Kurt Rosenwinkel found steady gigs, a harbor to develop their craft.
It still features late night jam sessions, the kind of thing that used to happen all over New York, but now is rare. Back in the 90’s I stayed til 5am on occasion myself. If you are young and want to meet people who are coming into their own, this session is the place to be.