There’s just something about the marriage of Jazz and New York that is perfect. Everyone knows that Jazz was born in New Orleans. Many also rightly associate it with Kansas City and Chicago. But New York played an important role in the story of Jazz. Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Sara Vaughn. These are just a few of the many titans that made their names at world famous clubs like Birdland and the Blue Note as well as small holes in the wall across the city whose names won’t be mentioned in any Jazz History textbook.
I’m a bit of a fanatic, so any trip I take to the City includes at least one or two shows. On a recent visit I gathered a group of fellow travelers and attempted something I hadn’t before – 24 Hours of Jazz. Plotting out an afternoon to afternoon agenda wasn’t difficult; deciding how to pair down the dozens of options was. It turned out that proximity made my planning easier, so all but one of the clubs is in the Village.
Smalls is situated downstairs behind a small door on 10th Street in the West Village. That’s not to say that the entrance is unassuming. The name is displayed no less than four times in quick secession vertically above it; one even etched into the building facade.
Get there early because the place fills up fast. Seats in the front are auditorium style, but still offer drink service. I prefer to find a seat at the bar and settle in to make nice with one of the bartenders adeptly dashing out spirits and wine.
The four o’clock show on Saturday afternoon kicked off our tour de Jazz. Get ready to get your afternoon started coming in hot, because the format is Jam Session. This is no sleepy afternoon tea affair. The featured band keeps things moving along with several sets that sometimes slow down a bit, but for the most part keep the pace lively. As things get underway, you’ll see musicians from young, budding teenage talent to seasoned players queueing up to get their chance to either jump in with the band or take center stage during breaks in the sets. There’s no telling which instruments you might see appear. The unpredictable and loose format make for a roaring good time.
183 W 10th St, New York, NY 10014
Around six thirty make your way just around the corner to this Prohibition Era hole in wall, this one slightly less known. Sure, the show starts at six and you’ll likely miss the end of the set at Smalls, but there’s no cover so it’s worth it. And given that this intimate, slightly shabby little hideaway isn’t normally as packed, chances are good you can arrive a little late and still score a table with a good view. We got there at 6:45 and within 15 minutes I had a saxophone gleaming in the light only a few feet in front of my face.
The early show features a musician or small group that changes frequently so be sure to check the schedule before you go. The quartet we saw on this particular Saturday had an incredible, upbeat vibe that kept us tumbling forward through our marathon, but on a recent visit we were treated to the velvety sounds of a soulful vocalist. Whatever the lineup you won’t leave disappointed. The 55 Bar is one of those gritty, cozy New York jazz club experiences that feel timeless. You get the feeling that you’re part of something special; that you’ve been let in on a secret.
Tip: There’s also a 10 PM show on Saturdays in case you want to hit dinner on the early side and save this joint for later.
Cover: Normally around $5 but can climbed to $15 depending upon the show. Two Drink Minimum
55 Christopher St, New York, NY 10014
Pro Tip: It turns out that if you don’t pace your alcohol intake properly when attempting 24 Hours of Jazz you may have a hard time making one of your stopovers. This is exactly what happened to us on Saturday night. The music at Smalls and 55 Bar was so lively and immersive we lost track of the number of cocktails and glasses of wine we had imbibed. As we stumbled out of dinner at Hakata Tonton, a favorite Asian hot pot place in The Village at almost ten o’clock we decided to kill time at Arthur’s Tavern, the Blues club next door before the next stop. However, one of our party got into a tussle with a very rude hostess. Words were exchanged and it was then that we realized that an taxi was more in order than another club.
Had we survived for another show, we would have ended up at Mezzrow for the 11:00 PM After Hours. This cozy, newer entry in the West Village from the folks at Smalls features a long narrow and is designed to host Piano-Bass duos. It’s chic, intimate atmosphere is perfect for unamplified groups. Sidle up to the long mahogany bar or if you’re willing to pay a little more, reserve one of the marble-topped café tables.
Cover: $10 walk-in. $20 reserved tables. One drink minimum.
163 W 10th St, New York, NY 10014
Sunday morning, with a few in our group nursing a slight hangover, we made our way up town to Smoke. This lovely restaurant and jazz club is situated just on the edge of Harlem, so it has a reputation for it’s soulful sounds and chicken and waffles. Sunday brunch features vocalist Annette St. John and her trio. We settled into our table near the front of the brightly lit room at twelve thirty for the second set of the day. The crowd is laid back at brunch but still serious about jazz. It’s refreshing to find a jazz brunch spot where the audience isn’t talking over the music. The piano player, bassist and drummer kicked it off just after we sat, warming up the crowd with a few upbeat numbers before being. The drum solos brought an lively energy to the room before the band was joined by St. John, whose voice brought to mind the velvety stylings of Shirley Horn. The performance runs from 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM, so we lingered leisurely over the crispy fried chicken with
The performance runs from 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM, so we lingered leisurely over the crispy fried chicken with belgian waffles and our drinks. As we paid the bill and stepped out into the bright sunny New York afternoon I realized what a treat it was to spend twenty four hours sampling some of the best Jazz haunts in a city filled with the long history of the art form. With so many great places to hear live music on the island of Manhattan alone, my only regret is that I hadn’t attempted 72 Hours of Jazz. Perhaps on the next trip…
Show runs from 11:00 AM – 4:00 PM
Tip: Make Reservations
2751 Broadway, New York, NY 10025