The soul of jazz is improvisation, and no recording can capture the excitement of listening as an artist creates a melody that has never been heard before and will never be heard again. Here is BusinessWeek's guide to some of the places in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York where you can hear the real thing.
When Louis Armstrong arrived in Chicago in 1922, he was entering the most exciting metropolitan jazz scene on the planet. New York has long since claimed that title. But while the great Chicago clubs of the '20s are no more, the city can still boast of a wide and vibrant jazz community whose offerings range from Dixieland to the most avant avant-garde.
Ground zero for any jazz traveler in the Windy City should be the Jazz Showcase, just north of the Chicago Loop. For more than 50 years, owner Joe Segal has been presenting most of the top acts the music has to offer. If nationally known musicians such as McCoy Tyner, Ray Brown, or Joe Lovano are in town, odds are they are playing at the Showcase. In his spacious, smoke-free club, Segal offers mainly traditional acoustic jazz. Occasionally, the Showcase will feature some Latin or big band acts, but few vocalists grace the stage--and forget about fusion or avant-garde. Part of Segal's Save the Children program includes a 4 p.m. Sunday matinee free to kids 12 and under.
A few blocks away is Andy's Jazz Club & Restaurant, where the music starts playing weekdays at noon. Originally a drinking joint favored by the city's newspapermen, Andy's now features live acoustic jazz daily, with a heavy dose of the local talent such as tenor sax legends Franz Jackson and Von Freeman. With live jazz accompanying a moderately priced lunch and dinner menu, Andy's sports a casual atmosphere, a well-stocked bar, and a decent Buffalo chicken sandwich.
HARD BOP. North in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, you'll find Pops for Champagne, an elegant, candlelit club with a wood-burning fireplace, sunken bar, and a catalog of more than 130 champagnes. There's also a fine selection of wines, cognacs, and scotches. The sounds at Pops are small-combo piano jazz, played seven nights a week. Also in Lincoln Park is Green Dolphin Street (773 395-0066), a spacious club and dinner spot on the northern branch of the Chicago River. Dolphin features traditional acoustic jazz, Afro-Cuban, and fusion. Sometimes, though, the groups may lean more toward R&B and funk, so check the listings first.
A trek farther north to the grittier Uptown neighborhood will yield the Green Mill, a funky dive that puts on some of the best jazz in the city. If Chicago still had hipsters and beatniks, this is where they would hang out. You can find everything from the avant-garde and big band to hard bop and poetry slams. Vocalist Kurt Elling and pianist and vocalist Patricia Barber, both major jazz recording artists, call the Green Mill home. The club is a bit cramped, and the location is far from the Loop, but true jazz fans won't mind the trip.
Free-jazz and avant-garde lovers have a few other options. One is the HotHouse, a roomy and comfortable spot in the South Loop. In addition to showcasing major avant-garde talent like Matthew Shipp and Tatsu Aoki, the HotHouse is a nonprofit performing arts center with art shows and cultural seminars. A few miles south is the Velvet Lounge, run by local legend Fred Anderson, a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Five nights a week, the Velvet Lounge features top-notch music in a dark, intimate, grungy setting.
Chicago boasts several other clubs, with music ranging from light piano to cutting-edge free jazz. The local papers and the alternative weekly, The Chicago Reader, provide a good listing of who's playing where in this energetic jazz hub.
By Darnell Little
By day, they play lucrative studio gigs, recording incidental music for TV and the movies. By night, these same musicians hit the clubs and make Los Angeles a great place to hear jazz. Here you can also catch a soon-to-be-gone generation of West Coast stars who helped define bop and cool jazz in the 1950s. Like anything in L.A., you'll burn a lot of fuel hitting the far-flung clubs, but it's worth it.
Over the past year, Charlie O's in the San Fernando Valley has become a locus for old-timers and studio cats. On Friday and Saturday nights, ex-Count Basie and Oscar Peterson bassist John Heard leads a trio that includes different hornmen each week, including ex-Tonight Show band tenor Pete Christlieb. On Tuesday and Thursday nights, Earl Palmer, one of the world's most recorded drummers, leads sessions popular with studio players who have played on one too many Coke and Toyota ads.
NO SMOKING. Across the Hollywood Hills in Los Feliz, 10 minutes northwest of downtown L.A., the year-old Jazz Spot has become one of the city's classiest clubs. Because it's in an upscale residential neighborhood, owner Rick Clemente completely soundproofed the room. The result is a 60-seat space whose acoustics rival those of the best concert halls. With odd-angled walls dotted with egg-crate foam, the room is so quiet that bands play without amplification. There's no cash-register ka-ching, no blender noise, and, like all bars and restaurants in California, no smoking. The Jazz Spot has hosted such L.A. tenor sax legends as Teddy Edwards and more contemporary players, including hard-driving tenorman Ernie Watts and pianist Alan Broadbent. If you want to combine a meal with music, the Jazz Spot also serves superb, if pricey, French California cuisine in a separate room.
For the past 15 years, L.A.'s most famous venue has been the Catalina Bar & Grill, a cozy room with a low ceiling and tables. The music ranges from more commercial fare to the fringes of the avant-garde. Meals--seafood is best--are served before and between sets. Catalina is close to the Sunset Strip in Hollywood.
The Jazz Bakery, located in a converted bakery, attracts a casual yet respectful crowd, which, along with a welcome lack of cash-register clatter, has encouraged top-tier musicians such as Joe Henderson, Dave Holland, and Ralph Towner to stretch out. Coffee, beer, wine, and snacks are sold in the lobby. The Bakery, in Culver City, is close to two freeways that bisect the Westside and Downtown. A big plus: It has plenty of free parking.
By Steven V. Brull
The West Coast has its cool school and Chicago has its blues, but musicians will tell you that no place swings as hard as New York. On any given night in Manhattan, it's a fair guess that half of the very best jazz musicians in the entire world are playing there. Many of the city's clubs have become shrines among aficionados, and visiting them is part of the fun of listening to music in the world's jazz capital.
The Village Vanguard, a bedrock of the jazz world, has survived for more than 65 years at the bottom of a slender stairway on Seventh Avenue South in Greenwich Village. Tables are packed into a dark, narrow space with a low ceiling and near-perfect acoustics. This is jazz at its most intimate--you can hear the musicians breathe. The Vanguard draws top talent and promising newcomers. In coming weeks, the club will host guitarist Jim Hall, vibist Bobby Hutcherson, and tenor sax master Joe Lovano.
Just down the street is Sweet Basil, an airy, street-level venue that features pretty good club cuisine--ribs, chicken, and the like--and its own roster of first-rate talents, such as Andy Bey, Marc Cary, and Kenny Garrett. Upcoming performers include drummer Will Calhoun (who played on the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour) and tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers and his trio.
BROADWAY ALTERNATIVE. The third of the trio of big-name clubs in the Village is the Blue Note. It doesn't have the Vanguard's history, but it draws top-drawer performers who otherwise only play concert halls. This spring, the club will feature trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and his big band, singer Nancy Wilson, and bassist Ron Carter. The Blue Note will sting you with some of the city's highest cover charges--often reaching $50 a person or more. But as an alternative to a Broadway show--where you can pay the same price for a seat in the first mezzanine--the Blue Note offers an unparalleled opportunity to see some of the greats close-up.
Further uptown is Cajun, a hideaway in Chelsea. On Mondays and Thursdays until 11 p.m., you'll find the Nighthawks, the big band of Vince Giordano. His mission is to keep alive the music of the 1920s and '30s big bands of such legends as Paul Whiteman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington.
To find Birdland, near Times Square, just follow the theatergoers down West 44th Street and keep walking until you cross Eighth Avenue. Here you can catch the Duke Ellington and Tito Puente big bands, carrying on the music of their departed leaders; the young piano star Brad Mehldau; and many other top names. And here's a secret: The view from the bar is as good or better than the view from the tables--making it a great place to stop in for a late drink.
These are just a few of the possibilities. The Friday New York Times and the Daily News, along with the Village Voice, which comes out on Wednesdays, will give you other ideas. And if you're marooned in the city on a Monday night, when much of Broadway is dark, don't despair: That's big-band night in New York. You can find some of the best of the new crop of musicians playing in Toshiko Akiyoshi's Jazz Orchestra at Birdland or the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra at the Village Vanguard. Just remember, as Duke Ellington used to say, if you want to be hip, snap those fingers on the upbeat. If you don't understand what that means, ask the guy with the beret at the bar. He'll know.
By Paul Raeburn