America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs

America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs

Lara Pellegrinelli
Photo by Melissa Richard

One minute, you’re just sitting around in some dark, dank, tiny, crowded, smoke-filled basement room with a drink in your hand; the next, you’re intently focused, completely absorbed, magically transported into the light of improvisation. That, in a nutshell, is the power of jazz, a power which moves listeners and can alter the experience of time and space.

Of course, the equation which fires up the transporter beam and determines the eventual warp factor contains many variables: artist, audience, and there’s always that choice of beverage. Certainly, venue has its place among these. Often, the best spaces have mystical properties, vibes, personalities distinctly their own. They may reflect the physical space or neighborhood surroundings; the weight of historical events which have taken place there or the owner’s personality. The greatest clubs, like the musicians who perform in them, are iconoclastic. They take on lives of their own.

When we think about jazz clubs, the stereotypic image that springs to mind is that of the smokey little room cloaked in darkness. Surprisingly few clubs of this ilk still exist across the country. Even fewer manage to book anything other than local talent. Many reasons account for their current struggle to stay alive: people have a wider range of entertainment options competing for their attention than ever before; Americans drink and smoke less than they did in past decades and drink sales were the lifeblood of most club revenue; and jazz comprises an extremely small market share within the music industry generally speaking. For CD sales, it’s only about 3 percent.

In the last decade or so, dozens of clubs have shut their doors: New York’s Bradley’s, the Village Gate, and Fat Tuesday’s; Boston’s Connolly’s; Baltimore’s The Sphinx Club; various establishments in Memphis owned by Andrew “Sunbeam” Mitchell (d. 1989) including Mitchell’s Hotel; Detroit’s Blue Bird Inn; and Portland, Oregon’s Hobbit, to name a few. Some, like the Royal Peacock in Atlanta and the famed Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, California, only present jazz occasionally.

A few vintage venues still exist, beating the odds, even thriving on the integrity of their bookings and a certain American predilection for “authenticity.” Chicago’s Green Mill (1910), perhaps the oldest club in the U.S. to continuously present music, was once a hangout for the notorious gangster Al Capone. It’s retained a period flavor and now hosts Chicago’s top talent, some nationally-known artists. The Village Vanguard was and continues to be New York’s shrine to jazz heavyweights past and present, from Thelonious Monk to Wynton Marsalis. Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, an establishment which has periodically shut down in recent years, falls in the category of piano and organ bars of which there are a dwindling number. Some other clubs which maintain the same vibes as decades past are the St. Nicholaus Pub and the Lenox Lounge in Harlem; Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus and the Clef Club in Philadelphia.

Among its numerous applications, social Darwinism works for jazz clubs as well. Rather than become extinct, venues have adapted to the changing times and their customers’ changing needs. Preservation Hall in New Orleans was perhaps the first in a new breed of jazz club. Devoid of smoke and drink, the venue’s primarly mission has been to preserve New Orleans-style jazz, one it’s upheld since the early 1960s. Instead of hiring more expensive talent, Boston’s Wally’s has evolved as largely a student venue where yet undiscovered Berklee students test their mettle. Tonic, a relative newcomer to the New York scene, has expanded traditional club offerings to include its own festival, a klezmer brunch, a film series, a songwriter series, and an open forum for discussion on various topics. The Jazz Bakery, in the Los Angeles area, is perhaps the only non-profit jazz club and presents the music in something akin to a concert setting.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is New York’s Blue Note. In an almost Disney-fied atmosphere, they present jazz as part of a tourist industry and have created franchises in other cities. Much of their business comes from food sales, as it does at Seattle’s Jazz Alley. Restaurant clubs like The Jazz Standard and Birdland in New York, Yoshi’s in San Francisco, the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, and Blues Alley in Washington DC seem to be the new standard. Happy marriages also exist between jazz clubs and hotels, which eliminates the cost of rent – Boston’s Scullers, Cambridge’s Regattabar, and New Orleans’ Horizons being prime examples.

The times they are a-changin’ and with them the American jazz club. Yet, in the best case scenario, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Even with the range in types of venues, what they present, and their continual evolution – on an individual basis as well as in general – having a unique vision, serving artists and communities will always form the basis for long-term success.

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