Playing it Close: Jazz Musicians on Their Fave Neighborhood Joints

Playing it Close: Jazz Musicians on Their Fave Neighborhood Joints

October 27, 2011 at 4:00 am

Brooklyn-based composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue offered tips for his favorite jazz venues around town. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Beyerstein.

Despite being stars in their field, New York’s incredibly talented jazz musicians carry few airs or dressing-room requirements when it comes to their gigs.

Within the same week or even night, they dip in and out of venues as dingy as the Fat Cat, where late-night jams are paired with players of pool and Ping Pong in a West Village basement, and as glamorous as Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, with Central Park views and Jazz at Lincoln Center caché.

Saxophonist Loren Schoenberg — also executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem — places great value in hearing music at less traditional venues. “As a musician, I’ve found that a lot of the best music takes place in rehearsal or in special circumstances where you’re not in a big venue, hearing a set band that just played a week here and a week there and are reciting back to you what they do all the time,” Schoenberg said. “What really satisfies my hunger is the sound of surprise. I’m much more likely to encounter the sound of surprise in a much more intimate venue.”

The jazz aficionados we interviewed agreed; they love playing in small, casual joints as much as fans love hearing them there.

Here’s where those in the know say you should go for some off-the-beaten path jazz in Manhattan, working from the southern tip of the island on up:

The Jazz Gallery, 290 Hudson St.

The Jazz Gallery, a nonprofit loft space on the outskirts of SoHo near the Holland Tunnel, is for “serious — in a good sense of the word — jazz listeners,” according to its director Deborah Steinglass. It’s a dry (no alcohol), narrow establishment where the audience, seated in 70 folding chairs lined up storefront church-style, pays rapt attention to both emerging and established musicians.

In 2010, the Jazz Gallery could boast that it presented nine of the last 11 winners of the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition — before they were so-recognized.  The regular roster also includes MacArthur Fellows Jason Moran, Miguel Zenón and Dafnis Prieto. The adventurous programming of the gallery made it one of eight venues in the country that the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers recognized with awards last year.


Musicians who regularly play at The Jazz Gallery sound-off about the challenges of life as a jazz musicians, including the difficulty of finding rehearsal space. In 2012, The Jazz Gallery will launch The Woodshed, a program that will grant its musicians more than 750 hours of free rehearsal time. Video courtesy of The Jazz Gallery.

“Playing there is a real community vibe and you see a lot of regulars,” says Canadian ex-pat Darcy James Argue, whose Grammy-award winning 18-member big band, the Secret Society, played the Bowery Poetry Club and CBGB’s before landing its first gig at The Jazz Gallery. “It’s like an extended living room.”

Argue’s band, which he describes as steampunk, will perform the commissioned work “Brooklyn Babylon” at Brooklyn Academy’s Next Wave Festival performance, Nov. 9-12.

Darcy James Argue conducts the Secret Society at The Jazz Gallery. “Darcy is a fascinating figure. He doesn’t limit himself,” said Loren Schoenberg, executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Beyerstein.

As for The Jazz Gallery programming in general, Steinglass said, “We’re presenting the jazz of tomorrow. You can still come here and hear Roy Hargrove (co-founder) do a few ballads or Gerald Clayton play some standards, but they’ll also play their own stuff.”

The Moldy Fig, 178 Stanton St.

The name of the jazz club The Moldy Fig belies both its fresh opening this summer and its repertoire of jazz artists. But the term “moldy fig” has been used since the 1940s to deride jazz traditionalists who reject the art form’s newer developments.

Owner Charles Brown, former manager of the Fat Cat, has a wide-open palate. Starting Nov. 8, he will give his elegant stage in a plush, high-ceilinged room over to the playful, six-person Stay Human Band led by pianist and New Orleans native Jonathan Batiste on Tuesday nights.

When Batiste was headlining at Dizzy’s earlier this year, people kept mentioning the Moldy Fig to him. After checking it out, he asked Brown if he’d like to book his group. “I wanted to play a regular gig — once a week, small — to prepare to for our summer tour in May 2012. It will give us chance to work on our chemistry and get our act together in front of an audience, but not at a place with a lot of PR.”

During his Julliard years, Batiste said, “I went to The Jazz Gallery and popular venues like Village Vanguard. I also went to Cleopatra’s Needle on Mondays because that was a jam session and you got to play. Eric Lewis, who goes by ELEW, was the pianist at the time.”

Smalls, 183 W. 10th St.

Smalls is a one-room basement spot down a narrow staircase in the West Village. It was instantly successful when it opened in 1994,  but then closed temporarily after 9/11. Pianist Spike Wilner (who studied with Schoenberg at the Manhattan School of Music) became a partner with Mitch Borden, the original owner, to bring it back to life in 2007. Smalls’ tech-savvy outreach for the 60-seat room includes an online audio and artist archive and live streaming of performances.

“Spike has taken the business to another level, with a liquor license and jazz from 4 p.m. until 3:30 a.m.,” said pianist Aaron Diehl, who often plays at Dizzy’s.

The trio of drummer Laurence Leathers, pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Paul Sikivie perform regularly at Smalls. Photo courtesy of Aaron Diehl

Laurence Leathers — who has a late-night jam session every other Friday — he, myself and Paul Sikivie have developed a reputation and fan base at Smalls…We’ve developed repertoire of music by sheer nature of playing the jam session. We played at Ronnie Scott’s in London, and a lot of what we played there for entire week is what we built up at Smalls. We can see how the crowd responds and then take it on the road.”

All ages, including children, are welcome at Smalls and there are no reservations.

Rubin Museum of Art, 150 W. 17th St.

The Harlem in the Himalayas series is so named because it takes place at the Rubin Museum of Art, which is dedicated to Himalayan art (and which is a sponsor of MetroFocus). The National Jazz Museum in Harlem co-produces the series, though the performers come from all over the world as well as New York. The series takes place on approximately 30 Friday nights a year. The gorgeous wood-paneled hall, which seats 100, is considered by many to have the best acoustics in New York City for unamplified music. Schoenberg explained that the room acclimates to the music, be it solo acoustic guitar or a boisterous large band. “Hungering for the natural sound, that’s a special space,” he said.

Something Jazz Club, 212 E. 52nd St., 3rd floor

Both pianist Aaron Diehl and trumpeter Nabaté Isles recommend Something Jazz Club (formerly known as Mile’s Café), on East 52nd Street. The club offers multiple events seven days a week and welcomes a new generation of listeners with a modest $10 cover (and free shows) and discounts for students and children. Isles, a Queens native who plays regularly at Fat Cat and Dizzy’s, said, “Everyone’s really paying attention to the music at the end of the day. Wherever the music takes me and wherever the musicians go, I never adjust it by environment.”

Bill’s Place, 148 W. 133rd St.

Harlem is the storied neighborhood of jazz, where musicians have always played and lived. Both Robin Bell Stevens, executive director of Jazzmobile, and Loren Schoenberg named Bill’s Place as a choice local spot.

Bill’s Place, owned by Harlem-born saxophone great Bill Saxton, is a former speakeasy that dates to the 1920s, when its West 133rd Street block was known as Swing Street for its large number of clubs. Located in a brownstone that is only 12-feet wide, it’s one of the most intimate settings to hear live music in the city; fans sit close enough to see the musicians’ sweat. Bill’s Place once reverberated with Billie Holiday’s live vocals and Willie the Lion Smith’s piano chords. No microphones are needed to hear Saxton holding forth on Friday nights with his quartet, playing “straight-ahead jazz at its best: be-bop, ballads, standards and homage to legends like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.” Saxton creates a warm atmosphere, honoring musician’s birthdays and offering explanations for novice listeners: “I talk to the people so they can understand. Sometimes there are questions, and I’ll try to answer.”


Bill’s Place featured on “The City Concealed: The Original Swing Street” from

The experts swing by regularly. “There’s just no telling who will be there,” says Saxton, whose career began in the late 1960s. “Wynton or Branford Marsalis, Jimmy Heath, James Carter, T.K. Blue…People know the music is going to be right and interesting. We have very young musicians too. It’s not a jam session, per se. We have a format but we open it. It’s like sitting in someone’s home.”


MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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