Since the early 20th century, New York City has become synonymous with all things jazz. From flapper girls shimmying their glitzy, fringed skirts, to smokey basements and sultry saxophones, to basslines that dictate the sounds of the Harlem streets, the top jazz clubs have always been nestled in New York City. A century has passed and the Duke Ellingtons and the Artie Shaws have all lent themselves to new generations of jazz musicians. However, their memory is kept alive by the jazz culture that continues to thrive in New York City, sometimes even in the same venues. But whether the musician changes, the sound is tweaked or a new jazz club emerges where a McDonalds stood last year, some of the top jazz clubs in the country can still be found today in New York City.
The Cotton Club
There is no jazz club in New York city more authentic, more spirited and more renown than The Cotton Club. Period. The club has been around since 1923 and has seen the likes of all the Jazz greats – Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne – you name it. Performers such as Duke Ellington and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson graced the stage, and it’s all thanks to the Cotton Club that they’ve seen numerous stages thereafter. In the 20s, the Cotton Club was the hub of the hub for the wealthy, famous and notorious in Harlem and the entire nightlife scene. While many of the Jazz clubs on this list weren’t even a thought, the Cotton Club planted itself in New York City as a staple of culture and high society. After 50 years of operation, the club shut its doors, only to re-open with same reputation as the best of the best in December 1977. There’s nothing pretentious or overly glitzy and staged about this joint – just raw talent, home cooked food and, well, a crowd of people who know good music. Since the venue is way uptown in Harlem, you’re likely to see true jazz connoisseurs and those who have done their research, rather than swarms of tourists and bar-hoppers. Monday nights are swing nights and Thursdays and Saturdays are great for a buffet dinner and a night full of the finest jazz in town. However, we recommend the Cotton Club Revue this Friday, featuring the Cotton Club Allstars, The Cotton Club’s Sophisticated Ladies (a chorus line) and a performance by world-famous tap dancer Omar Edwards .
What could possibly compliment the sweet barbeque at Blue Smoke even more than a Mint Julep or an Illinois Swing cocktail? A heaping spoonful of hot jazz from the Jazz Standard just next door. With two sets an evening and late night sets on the weekend, you can show up for the band and grab a drink or show up for some tasty southern cooking and catch a band. The constant serenade by strolling bass lines and slide guitars makes this the perfect atmosphere for a jazz club, whether you’re a jazz afficiando or just passing through. Jazz talents such as Frank Morgan, Mina Agossi, Rene Marie and Andre Previn have graced the stage, allowing this venue to make the cut for our list of top jazz clubs in New York City – but that’s not the only reason. On Sundays, the venue showcases the Jazz Standard Youth Orchestra made up of talented children musicians from around the city. In lieu of a cover charge, the venue asks guests to make a $5 donation to the Jazz Standard Discovery Program. Great music for a great cause? – We like it. Monday nights are also a hit, with a showcase devoted to Charles Mingus, a sound the venue describes as “personal and emotional…it leaves all these spaces for these other musi¬cians to come in to put in their own personality and individuality to the music.”
The Blue Note
Now, Blue Note has not been around since the 1920s, but catch a buzz of how its reputation has built over the past 30 years, and you might think that it was. This Grenwich village hotspot was founded by Danny Bensusan, whose dream of bringing the most respected musicians to an intimate, cool setting has been realized and recognized while remaining authentic and not overly commercialized. We’re not sure how he did it, but we won’t ask questions. Artists such as Sarah Vaughn, Lionel Hampton, Tito Puente and Dizzy Gillespie all the way to Chic Corea and John Scofield have graced the stage at Blue Note, but the club, which prides itself on innovation and progression makes room for Hip-Hop, Soul and R&B in its creative, welcoming space. “What makes Blue Note so special is that on a given night, anything can happen,” boasts the venue’s website, noting impromptu appearances by Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett and Liza Minelli. Check out the club’s “Late Night Groove Series” which begins at 12:30am, and for those jazz animals who don’t happen to be night owls, a jazz brunch is offered every Sunday at 12:30pm and 2:30pm.
The “Bird” (Charlie Parker) lends his name to this world famous jazz club that once housed John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie in its ‘50s and ‘60s prime. The venue has relocated from its nook in the Upper West Side, but sounds of modern day jazz luminaries and walls adorned with past legendary acts remind us why Birdland is still one of the best jazz clubs in New York City – and the music isn’t the only reason why we love this place so much. The folks at Birdland know how much a few dirty martinis and a night full of great live music can work up an appetite, so this supperclub serves up food like sweet, southern baby back ribs, lending the right tinge of southern comfort to this jazz haven. The price of quality jazz and tasty food is a bit steep with cover charges ranging from $10 - $50 depending on the night, but we think it’s definitely worth it. Nothing to do on a Sunday night? Check out Chico O'Farrill's 18-piece Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, directed by Chico’s son, Arturo O’Farrill.
Iridium Jazz Club
The trendy 20s vibe is recreated (almost) in full in this subterranean jazz den, which resonates nightly with some of the best jazz sounds in New York City. Iridium has become famous in the past decade for its Monday night sets headlined by the notorious Les Paul. Since his death, Monday nights remain devoted to his legend with performances by Steve Miller, the Les Paul trio and more, keeping the venue alive and filled nightly with jazz-lovers of all ages. Jazz greats such as Jimmy Scott (vocals), Mike Stern (guitar) and Pharaoh Sanders (saxophone) make a night out at Iridium Jazz Club worth tolerating gobs of European tourists and a cab ride into Times Square – or the fact that there’s no dress code or age requirement, and students get half price tickets on select weeknights.