Jazz music is one of America’s great art forms, a musical blend of cultures — West African rhythms, elements of spirituals and the blues, and America’s marching band instruments, brass and reeds — that evolved throughout the 20th century. Its blooming spread across the nation. Jazz started off as a type of dance music played by self-taught instrumentalists in New Orleans, which was performed in brothels and bars. As the genre transitioned from the red light to the spotlight, Chicago became a hotbed for jazz in the North, turning out many great bandleaders, and Kansas City grew in reputation as the genre transitioned from swing to bebop. New York City became a new center for jazz by the mid-century, but by that time, popular clubs had popped up in most major cities.
Harmonies and rhythms are an integral part of jazz, but equally important is the spontaneity. Improvised solos are new in every rendition of a tune, and every live performance is a chance to see music created in real-time. The technique, the history and the improvisation come together as a living, breathing art form. Because its soul is in live performance, that’s how it’s best experienced.
Jazz venues aren’t cavernous concert halls. They’re often intimate performance spaces where listeners can immerse themselves in the music. No matter where you are in North America, there’s probably a jazz club nearby. For well over a century, jazz has continued to grow and change, always managing to bring something new to the table. So for your next night out, head to one of these venues for a one-of-a-kind experience.
In the Lead: Jimmy Heath at the Village Vanguard
Criteria for Inclusion: Choosing the “best” of anything will always lead to debate. And a list of 17 is hardly a list at all. We left out many notables — Yoshi’s in Oakland, the Blue Note in New York and Upstairs in Montreal, to name a few. But what remain are 17 examples of big selections or big personalities or both — or, occasionally, neither. Think we missed something? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
GP’s 17 Favorite Jazz Clubs Across America
Village Vanguard – Manhattan, NY
SFJAZZ – San Francisco, Calfornia
Blue Whale – Los Angeles, CA
Wally’s Cafe – Boston, MA
Bohemian Caverns – Washington, D.C.
The Spotted Cat Music Club – New Orleans, LA
Diese Onze – Montreal, QC
The Elephant Room – Austin, TX
Jimmy Mak’s Portland, OR
Cezanne – Houston, TX
Smalls Jazz Club – New York, NY
Green Lady Lounge – Kansas City, MO
Libra Room – Vancouver, BC
The Rex – Toronto, CA
Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley – Seattle, WA
Chris’ Jazz Cafe – Philadelphia, PA
The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge – Chicago, IL
Manhattan, New York
The Low Down: Max Gordon opened Village Vanguard at its current location in 1935. He died in 1989, but his widow Lorraine still runs the place. That makes for 81 years of standards and pushed boundaries, by artists like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans, in the red-lit corner of the basement venue. Today artists play six days straight; the venue hopes that that gives the city a better chance to embrace them, and them a chance to grow within NYC’s oldest, and most hallowed, jazz club.
San Francisco, California
The Low Down: In January 2013, SFJAZZ opened its doors in San Francisco’s Civic Center, offering world-class performances and forward-thinking educational programs. The building itself has won a slew of design awards and features a performance hall designed with great visibility and amazing acoustics. Top jazz musicians from across the world grace the stage of SFJAZZ every night, but its community outreach programs set the venue apart. Jazz in the Middle brings talented high school students together to perform and learn, and lectures for all age groups deepen the community’s understanding of jazz music. The SFJAZZ Collective is a rotating group of eight top jazz musicians, commissioned by SFJAZZ to create a new repertoire and tour with it, promoting creativity and advancing the art form.
Los Angeles, California
The Low Down: Blue Whale opened in the heart of Little Tokyo in 2009 with an intimate and very modern design — cubes of upholstered blue scattered around an unpretentious stage, with no assigned seating and a bar at the back serving Lychee Gin Fizzes and Shiitake Mushroom Sliders. Under the leadership of Joon Lee, it has come to present a microcosm of the rise of the L.A. jazz scene.
The Low Down: Purportedly the first nightclub in New England owned by an African-American, Wally’s Cafe hosts regular jam sessions and serves as a breeding ground for young talent. Through its Student Music Project, the club pairs music school students with elementary schoolers for a long-running hands-on mentorship program.
The Low Down: Though the name, the performers and the surrounding neighborhood have changed, Bohemian Caverns has remained in the same cave-inspired spot — stomping ground of Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Charles Mingus and more — since 1926. One last change: the mural on the back of the building.
The Spotted Cat Music Club
New Orleans, Louisiana
The Low Down: The best place for jazz is The Big Easy, and the most-loved venue in The Big Easy is The Spotted Cat Music Club, or, more simply, The Cat. It’s cramped and creaking and worn (just like everything else in Nola), but it pours out an eclectic mashup of blues, jazz and Latin music, and serves drinks cheap and fast. It caters to both the locals and herds of tourists. Make visiting a priority, but bring cash and a full stomach, because you won’t find credit cards or food here.
In Brief As a somewhat younger entrant into the world of jazz clubs, one of Diese Onze’s primary draws is its 21st-century dining sensibilities. Inside or out in the backyard, one can enjoy mahi-mahi ceviche or mint chicken satay with peanut while enjoying everything from American to Brazilian standards.
The Elephant Room
The Low Down: Widely regarded as the standard for live jazz in Austin, Texas, The Elephant Room’s cozy, brick basement venue measures the quirks of a local dive (slow drink service, dollar bills plastered on the walls) with a no-nonsense, chop-ridden lineup of performances. The venue is particularly notable for its Monday night open jams, which attract fierce touring acts, wildcard locals and U-of-T young bucks alike. Try and catch local legend Ephraim Owens if you can.
The Low Down: Ask anyone in Portland where to see jazz and Jimmy Mak’s will be one of their first suggestions. There you’ll find a churning weekly cycle of standing shows with local giants (be sure to catch drummer Mel Brown) as well as frequent slots for touring acts and up-and-comers (watch out for Alex Koehler and Nicole Glover.) The food and drinks aren’t bad, and the musicians are happy to chat about Portland’s jazz scene in between sets.
The Low Down: With four shows a week split between Friday and Saturday night, the Cezanne — the self-proclaimed “premier jazz club of the Southwest” with a booking list to show for it — is a place to arrive at early. There are no advanced tickets, and first-come-first-serve seating means the early bird gets to sit at the business end of the saxophone. The club serves drinks, but be warned, the downstairs restaurant only supplies a limited dinner menu.
If You Can’t Get Out, Stream Some Jazz
If you have a yearning for some tunes, but can’t get away from the house for the evening, listen to some music recommended by Gilad Hekselman, a rising star guitarist in the jazz community. He takes the time to share the 16 jazz albums that influence him the most. Listen Here
Smalls Jazz Club
New York, NY
The Low Down: Down a narrow set of stairs off of 10th Street in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village is an intimate 60-seat jazz club called Smalls. Founded in 1994, this basement venue quickly became an institution; and since 2007, every late-night session has been streamed live online. Cozy up to the bar and get a drink or squeeze into a table with some friends, and listen to local favorites play every night.
Green Lady Lounge
Kansas City, MO
The Low Down: Count Basie and Charlie Parker bookended the Kansas City style of jazz, which brought big-band swing into the bebop era, focused on extended soloing and shared its 12-bar DNA with the city’s other beloved style, the blues. The Green Lady Lounge is one of the city’s beating hearts of jazz today, open seven days a week with no cover, ever. Its low lights, oil paintings and cocktails put it on par with the dens of boozin’ and riffin’ from the 1930s and ’40s.
Vancouver, British Columbia
The Low Down: Capone’s and The Cellar may be closed, but Libra Room remains a beacon with no cover charge for those who come to Vancouver with a hankering for live jazz. The 90-seat venue, located near the city’s downtown core on bustling Commercial Drive, maintains an aggressive seven-day-a-week music schedule with two bands per night.
The Low Down: When it comes to Canadian jazz, some immediately think Montreal, but Toronto has a sleeper scene worth checking out. When you do, The Rex is an excellent jumping-off point. Established in the 1980s, The Rex is part hotel and part jazz venue known to boast world-class touring acts and to serve as a focal point during the Toronto Jazz Festival. It’s a tight space that fills up quick, so be ready to stake your claim before visibility becomes limited. Food exists, but most recommend the breakfast service, which ends before the jazz begins.
Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley
The Low Down: Seattle’s hub for jazz, Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, has been operational since 1979, and has been home to the Pacific Jazz Institute since 1986. This dinner club has ample seating around the stage and in a balcony, and it offers a full menu of local food. And don’t worry about finding a parking spot; Dimitriou’s offers free parking.
Chris’ Jazz Cafe
The Low Down: Philly has housed some notable jazz greats — the Heath Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane — and, for the past three decades, a venue that was named one of the “100 Great Venues Around the World to Hear Jazz” by DownBeat Magazine. Chris’ Jazz Bar is an intimate gem that stands out among less serious, more diverse venues around the city. If you want food, buy tickets early (dinner seating is limited) and expect something expensive but delicious.
The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge
The Low Down: The Green Mill’s name comes from a bastardization of “Moulin Rouge” (Red Mill), the club’s inspiration; its legend and myth, from its founding in 1907 and its speakeasy status in the 1920s; its style and inspiration, from its figurehead, whom the house musicians know as Stella by Starlight. The music runs the gamut from traditional to bebop to contemporary and improvisational, capped off every week with a Sunday night poetry slam.