What makes a jazz club? The music, of course. The atmosphere. The cultural significance.
As an art form born in African-American communities of the 19th century and expanded in the urban melting pots of the 20th, jazz is the soundtrack of the concrete jungle.
Which makes the jazz club an essential element in any modern city’s ecosystem. Here are some of the best examples.
Village Vanguard, New York City
In a city often hailed as the jazz mecca of the world, Village Vanguard is its black stone, the ultimate place of worship, the quintessential jazz club. From the moment you descend the steep stairway to the small basement venue, you find yourself steeped in the history of jazz. From Bill Evans to Brad Mehldau, and from Sonny Rollins to Joe Lovano and Jason Moran, most of the jazz greats have performed in the same dimly lit subterranean space, adding to the aura of this place that’s a point of reference for the global jazz community.
Unlike many other historical venues — Birdland, Blue Note, the Cotton Club, etc. — the Village Vanguard has not changed, nor has it ever stopped functioning. It’s been at the same address (178 Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village) for 80 years, since opening in 1935. What’s even more impressive is that it’s still run by the same people: Lorraine Gordon, the nonagenarian owner and widow of the club’s founder and original manager, Max Gordon, is herself a New York institution.
Preservation Hall, New Orleans
Yes, the birthplace of jazz is probably the home to hotter venues than this — such as Blue Nile, Spotted Cat, Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse or any place where Kermit Ruffins is playing. But there is no other place that can transport the audience through time to the very origins of jazz. Since its opening in 1961, Preservation Hall has been so much more than a jazz club. Home of the eponymous jazz band, devoted to the music of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and the other heroes of New Orleans music, it is the perennial home of the original sound of jazz, a place where the Crescent City tradition is meant to pass on from one generation to another in the most exciting and delightful way.
Perched on one side of Amsterdam’s almost transparent glass-and-iron riverside Muziekgebouw (“Music Building”), Bimhuis is arguably the best jazz club in Europe, offering the ideal live experience.
Its acoustics are almost perfect, and so is the amphitheater-style seating that allows each patron the best visual access to what’s happening on stage — and beyond: During a concert, the curtains behind the band are raised, revealing the glass wall that reveals the commanding, Renzo Piano-designed Nemo Museum. It’s a visual experience that reflects the thrilling sounds of the international jazz masters regularly performing at the Bimhuis.
Blue Note, Tokyo
As urban settings go, few cities can rival Tokyo. It is no wonder, then, that the city is home to a legendary New York jazz club franchise.
Sleek, high-end, luxurious and sophisticated, the Blue Note is a symbol of the globalization of jazz aesthetics, featuring a regular who’s-who of American jazzmen along with local talent, such as the superb Toshiko Akiyoshi.
Nublu, New York & Istanbul
Istanbul is often described as an Eastern New York — a melting pot of bursting creativity. It’s only natural, then, that the two cities share a jazz club. And it’s not just any club. Established by the ingenious Swedish-Turkish sax player Ilhan Ersahin, Nublu opened in New York’s Lower East Side in 2002, when the area was healing from the September 11 attacks.
Soon, the place became a hub for innovative musicians, creating a sound of its own: an urban blend of Afro-Caribbean-electro-dance-jazz-funk with a Brazilian tinge. Ten years later, the Nublu sound would travel to Istanbul.
The meeting point is the cable car station at the Piazza di Porta Maggiore. From there, twice a week, the “Tramjazz” begins its journey through the streets of the Eternal City, offering a night of delight. The vintage cable car is transformed into a cozy mobile club and restaurant serving traditional local dishes. The middle part of the old carriage is reserved for the small band — a duo or trio playing while the tram roams the streets of Rome. When it stops in front of the Colosseum, the setting is one of the most dramatic any musician (or music fan) could ask for.
Piano Barge, Vannes, France
What could be better than a mobile jazz club? How about a floating one? Located in the Gulf of Morbihan in the small Breton city of Vannes, Piano Barge is the best jazz club to emerge anywhere in the world these past two years. An old boat turned into a chic bistro, Piano Barge is a dream come true for the French jazz community, as it does more than just host live sessions: Some of its cabins are used as studios, with the goal of producing 20 to 30 new albums a year.
Beit HaAmudim, Tel Aviv
The Israeli jazz scene has been in full bloom for quite some time now, and it owes a lot to venues like Beit HaAmudim. Located in an old house decorated with columns and painted floors, and situated right next to the Carmel Market, this club is the meeting point of the city’s jazz aficionados. “It’s the place where musicians hang,” says Tamuz Nissim, a Tel Aviv native and a jazz singer who studied in Amsterdam, lived in Athens and is now based in New York. “People go there specifically for the music. It’s really quiet — the bassists play acoustically, no amp.”
The Crypt, Cape Town
A jazz club located under a church? The aptly named Crypt is just that. It’s a labor of love for its creators, among them the dean of St. George’s Cathedral, a jazz enthusiast whose vision for the cathedral as the “people’s church” led him to reach out to the broader community through the universal language of jazz. “It is very cool,” says Andrew Coote, a South African trumpeter living in Melbourne. “It feels like you’re in an old club in Rome.”
Creative Jazz Club Aotearoa, Auckland
We tend to forget it sometimes, but a club is actually not a place. It’s a meeting of like-minded people, such as the community of musicians who formed Auckland’s Creative Jazz Club. It holds its weekly meetings in the basement of the 1885 Britomart bar. Upstairs, a youthful crowd enjoys cocktails and loud music, not suspecting that just below their feet, some of New Zealand’s best jazz artists are playing challenging music in an intimate setting to people lounging on sofas scattered around the band. It’s the perfect cover.
Bennetts Lane Jazz Club, Melbourne
It might be bold, even strange, to claim that the world’s best jazz club is in Australia, but many people shared this opinion (articulated in a Lonely Planet guide to Melbourne). Among those people? Wynton Marsalis and Prince. Bennetts Lane Jazz Club shut down in June after an epic night titled “Death of a Jazz Club.” As for its legacy, it will go on: The owners promise to open two new clubs. In the meantime, the city’s vibrant jazz scene is scattered among Melbourne’s other venues, notably Paris Cat and Uptown Jazz Cafe.