It Don’t Mean A Thing, ’Cause They Still Got That Swing

Contemporary Jazz Venues Reflect a Rich Musical History and an Expanding Experimetal Scene in New York City


Published: November 19, 2009

Jazz exploded in New York in the 1920s. Musicians from New Orleans, Chicago and Washington, D.C. like the band leaders Duke Ellington and Clarence Wlliams flocked to The Big Apple and found a new home in underground, Prohibition-era “speakeasy” jazz clubs. Black artists had developed a genre that was uniquely American, and yet indebted to West African and Blues tradition.

Electric guitars have helped jazz fusion, or jazz rock, musicians gain recoginition among fans attending shows at local jazz venues. (Angelica Garza/The Observer)

Today, jazz has evolved to include elements of rock, funk and R&B, maintaining an element of the avant-garde that defined jazz in its early stages. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a scene quite like the golden “Jazz Era,” but New York City still has a thriving, diverse jazz movement that isn’t hard to find.

At the height of the Jazz Age, the most popular clubs and bars were found on 52nd Street and in Harlem. Jazz represents an evolution, of both music and American culture, one that is changing and growing even today as jazz music continues to play at these great venues all over New York City.


The Cotton Club (656 West 125th St.)

The Cotton Club was originally founded by Heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson at 142nd Street and Lenox Ave. If you’re thinking “Cotton Club” sounds like a vestige of racism in America, well, you’re right. The white owners gave it the name because the performers were black, something that probably wouldn’t go unnoticed in this age of political correctness. A number of famous musicians were associated with the Club, like the band leaders Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Ethel Waters  and Cab Calloway, who performed at the club’s 1978 reopening. Patrons still flock to the Cotton Club for jazz and blues shows, as well as a once-a-week swing dance night on Mondays with the house band.


The Village Vanguard (178 Seventh Ave.)

The Village Vanguard is a favorite among jazz musicians because of its unique stage. The stage is literally a triangle that booms out music much like that of a theatre or opera house.

The Village Vanguard is a shining example of jazz’s longevity and willingness to experiment. The Village Vanguard has only 123 seats, the same number it had when it opened in 1935. On Monday nights, the Vanguard features its own jazz orchestra, formed over thirty years ago by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. The Vanguard’s upcoming schedule reveals a shocking number of guitar players, showing the prominence jazz fusion, or jazz rock, has attained in the jazz scene. Prices usually peak Saturday night around $30, but the club offers lower prices regularly during the week.


Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (Broadway at 60th Street)

Dizzy’s features the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which was formed in 1988 and comprises 15 jazz musicians, mostly saxophonists and trumpeters. The club offers special student promotions from time to time at very reduced rates. The club has recently hosted modern jazz fusion artists like Mulgrew Miller and Wingspan, Antonio Miller and Steve Nelson. Monday nights are reserved for showcasing young upcoming musicians, and for those who can’t get enough jazz, Dizzy’s After Hours shows keep the music going well into the morning. Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Lincoln Center offers shows that range from five dollars to $10.


Arthur’s Tavern (57 Grove St.)

Monday nights are reserved for the club’s Dixieland Jazz band, a tradition they have carried on for 35 years. Arthur’s Tavern opened in 1937, and has remained at 57 Grove St. since its inception. In its heyday, it attracted jazz titans Charlie Parker and Roy Hargrove. Arthur’s prides itself on offering a variety of jazz ranging from New Orleans style to Chicago blues. Amazingly, Arthur’s Tavern has no cover charge, so you won’t break the bank seeing a jazz set from Tuesday to Saturday, or a Dixieland set on Sunday or Monday.