Cheap NYC Jazz Clubs
New York City: Affordable Live Jazz Clubs In Manhattan
(Where you can hear the greats from Greenwich Village to Harlem)
By Gordon Polatnick
I started Big Apple Jazz Tours with the understanding that jazz is at its best when musicians and audiences are sharing an intimate, interactive experience that feels like it could go on forever, and that something unexpected is bound to happen. There are wonderful, famous Manhattan clubs like the Village Vanguard, Birdland, Blue Note, Dizzy’s, Iridium, Jazz Standard, and Smoke, which regularly present legendary performers in intimate settings but must clear the house between sets – stifling the spontaneity to some extent. These are great venues but they don’t tell the whole story. Jazz fans in New York have become used to plenty of options that you may not be aware of yet.
New York has been home to the majority of legendary jazz musicians for over 100 years, but they don’t start off legendary and they need places to play on their way up. All the best and most ambitious players can been found nightly in the city’s intimate, underground clubs. They are vying to get your attention, forming groups, writing tunes, rearranging charts and playing alongside their heroes in the most exuberant jazz scene anywhere.
After 20 years of guiding people into this hidden underground scene nightly, I have become an authority on where to go and on which nights to hear bands and players who should not be missed. We were there on hundreds of nights hearing musical geniuses like Gregory Porter, James Carter, Brad Mehldau, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Eric Lewis — all sitting in and playing small club gigs before having achieved wider international recognition.
Another benefit of being a jazz fan, living in New York City is hearing the buzz about where the legends of jazz can be found sitting in, taking gigs or even just hanging out at these underground clubs. Within the last few years we’ve enjoyed intimate shows with Jimmy Heath, Ron Carter, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Olu Dara, Roy Hargrove, Jane Monheit, Wycliffe Gordon, Wynton Marsalis, Annie Ross, John Hendricks, Benny Golson, Lou Donaldson and so many others. You just have to know where to go and when to get there.
So here you go:
In the West Village (Greenwich Village around Sheridan Square at 7th Ave. South) there is an explosion of jazz clubs all within a few blocks of each other – some with free sets of top shelf live jazz (and some blues/R&B/gospel/show-tune-sing-a-longs/ even chamber music) available. A few of the clubs listed just ask for a 2 drink minimum; one just asks for $3 and welcomes all ages; a couple have free early sets and charge a $10 – $20 cover for several hours of live music after their earlier free sets. FYI: These clubs and more are listed on our site, and this is a collection of some in Greenwich Village and Harlem.
Fat Cat: $3, all ages, has pool, ping pong, shuffle board, board games and music typically going from around 6PM – 3AM ending in a jam session. A lot of people are put off by the loud gaming sounds surrounding the jazz, but with the likes of Jimmy Cobb and Harold Mabern making the scene, who are we to complain.
Smalls: Cheaper sets as early as 4 PM, $20 after 7:30 PM. Students ($10) welcome. Standard bearer for the neighborhood jazz scene. After-hours jam session nightly. Check out their sister club across 7th Ave named for Mezz Mezzrow, the famed musician and author of everybody’s favorite jazz memoir, Really the Blues.
Arthur’s Tavern: Always free, oldest jazz club in NYC, with a variety of jazz/blues/house rockers/R&B and the longest running trad jazz band, Grove Street Stompers, in the city (for over 50 years).
55 Bar: Free early sets by extraordinary players, $10 or so for later sets. Off-off Broadway home to guitarist, Mike Stern. Historic divey venue most likely to plug in, and tied to the speakeasy age.
For standing around a piano singing show tunes in an ancient Village basement, there’s Marie’s Crisis Cafe, next door to Arthur’s Tavern; and more visibly, on the corner of Christopher and 7th is The Duplex piano bar and cabaret. And for classic jazz piano bar vibe, try Mezzrow ($20) on 7th and 10th.
(Oh yeah, and you don’t want to miss out on free, old-school jazz every Sunday 8PM-11PM at the Ear Inn on Spring street. Get there early enough to score a table by trumpeter/bandleader Jon-Erik Kellso and guitarist Matt Munisteri plus an unbelievable roster of special guests musicians rotating through every week). The food is wonderful, and the Ear Inn building is closing in on 200 years of NY history).
A little further off Sheridan Square is The Cornelia Street Cafe with a narrow basement club serving good food and featuring eclectic and esoteric entertainment with a great Village vibe that goes back decades.
A short walk to the east past 6th Ave. will take you to another inexpensive music mecca orbiting around the Blue Note. The jazziest among these are The Bar Next Door on MacDougal, and Zinc Bar on West 3rd – each with excellent jazz credentials and a decidedly more dimly lit, romantic vibe then the places mentioned above, and both featuring vocalists on Monday nights. These clubs have cover charges of $10 -$25 and the Bar Next Door serves limited menu Italian fare.
It should also be noted that the last remaining blues club in the city is Terra Blues on Bleecker Street in a 2nd floor space that has acoustic blues booked from 7:30 and electric blues after 10PM 7 nights a week.
Hidden jazz haunts in the Village heading East that must not go unmentioned are Knickerbocker for knock out duos and trios and steak; The Stone in the East Village for stripped-down, bare-knuckled avant-garde; Jules Bistro for the French perspective; and finally 5C, Nublu, Nuyorican, Also, a free underground late night Tuesday trad jazz jam has erupted at Mona’s on Ave. B.
The most hidden treasure of midtown is at the Local 802 AFM: Monday Night Jam presented by Jazz Foundation of America: This show has been around for decades. Jazz Foundation hosts a free open jam every Monday 7:00 PM – 9:30 PM. Everyone from big names to up-and-comers come by to hang out and rehearse together. 322 West 48th Street. (212) 245-4802.
Jumping up to Harlem, there is a nice concentration of live jazz venues in the Central Harlem district that made jazz a household word in the post WWI period dubbed The Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The area around the original Swing Street, West 133rd and 7th Ave. (now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd), is home to 4 important joints on the uptown jazz map. All 4 are remarkable in their own way, and all 4 are affordable and supported by the neighborhood as well as visitors from around the world (even without the support of a website in many cases).
Bill’s Place: $20 cover for a set of no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, blood and guts jazz only on Fridays and Saturdays. Pile in by 8PM for the first set (10PM for the 2nd set), and enjoy the one-of-a-kind fantasy of hearing Bill Saxton and the Young Musicians of New York that he discovers, deliver the goods in a 1920’s prohibition era speakeasy right on the original Swing Street. 148 W.133rd Street, (the place where Billie Holiday was discovered by John Hammond in the early 30’s).
American Legion Post #398 : Free music and cheap, great soul food and drinks. This military veterans members only club boasts one of Harlem’s remaining two Hammond organs getting a regular work-out in an uptown jazz joint. Alternating Wednesdays; Thursdays; and Sundays. You are welcome but don’t forget to sign the guest book upon entering. 248 West 132nd Street.
Shrine : Free music of any and all stripes lined up one after the other 7 nights a week. This restaurant/club stands alone as a youthful enterprize that attracts people of all ages and keeps the party thumping with loud djing between bands, and a whirling lights and fog display not found in any other NYC jazz venue. Named as an homage to Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Lagos, Nigeria Afrobeat club of the same name. 2271 7th Ave. (ACP Blvd.) blvd (Shrine has a sister club, Silvana, which shares it’s roster of great bands in a decidedly more Middle Eastern, hookah lounge vibe).
NAMA (New Amsterdam Musical Association): Monday evening jam sessions at this 115 year old organiztion is your link to a time when black musicians had to form their own union and take care of their own. Firmly rooted in Central Harlem since its musical heyday, NAMA’s evident faded glory is worn as a badge of honor by the fine musicians who are currently making the scene. 107 West 130th Street
Other noteworthy venues outside of this historic jazz vortex including those on Harlem’s main drag of 125th Street are Showman’s: since 1942 with $10 live jazz Wednesday thru Saturday (and Harlem’s other Hammond organ) at 375 West 125th Street; Apollo Theater : still acting as the crucible for the 20th century’s most influential pop artists: Wednesday’s Amateur Night, which has been creating legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder and Lauryn Hill since its debut in 1934 — at 253 W125th Street; Ironically, Red Rooster, the most expensive, celebrity hideout in Harlem does not charge a cover for Sunday and Monday soul/jazz nights in their welcoming street level lounge — 310 Lenox Ave. Their downstairs venue, Ginny’s Supper Club, does charge $15-$25 for their live performances. Most impressive of all affordable jazz venues in Harlem is Parlor Entertainment, which is a rite of passage for all uptown music lovers. Every Sunday at 3:30PM since 1991, people in the know have been heading to 555 Edgecombe Ave. and buzzing #107 for apt. #3F to be let into the free weekly jazz recital led by Marjorie Eliot in her home at the legendary Triple Nickel apartment building.
Paris Blues: No cover and free chicken, rice and beans. Two drink minimum. Love Bucket Live Bands 7 nights a week (9 PM – 1 AM) and 2 bands on Sunday, with alternating Latin Jazz Bands (9-1). Bands perform 3 sets and allow instrumentalist and vocalist alike to sit in! This is Harlem’s oldest and only remaining live jazz dive, and you are likely to see 81 year old style maven Sam Hargress Jr: owner, cook and still manager, glad-handing the crowd.
449 LA Scat : $10 cover charge on music days from Thursday – Sunday excluding the coldest winter months when the club is on hiatus. The talent ranges from old masters that grace the covers of well loved lp records from the 60’s to the neighborhood musicians, singers and poets trying to get a foothold in a career on its way up or contentedly plateaued. 449 Lenox Ave.
There is no more important modern jazz club historically than Minton’s Playhouse, where Monk, Gillespie, Parker et al. invented bebop during nightly sessions in the 1940’s. I’m happy to announce that Minton’s got a face lift in 2006 and re-opened as the Uptown Lounge after being shuttered for decades, but then closed; but then got a more incredible face lift and is open again for business as Minton’s. Great bands from Wednesday thru Sunday grace the legendary stage.
Sugar Hill is home to Farafina which has the best late night, subterranean jazz party anywhere in the city from 11:30 PM – 4 AM on Friday and Saturday nights. This is the spot where the insider Harlem jazz crowd knows to go and cut loose far from the tourist trail. You’ll be rewarded for making the journey with free cover charge and the true spirit of jazz being presented in an atmosphere where the fans and the musicians are one.
To cut to the chase and be escorted by experts in scouting out which venue has the best talent on any given night, check out our Big Apple Jazz Harlem Juke Joint Tour or Greenwich Village Jazz Crawl – lots of great history and three of the most exciting underground clubs explored nightly. We pride ourselves in knowing the clubs and musicians better than anyone in the city – so we can select the best of the best shows to create a remarkable night of music that will not soon be forgotten.