December 7, 2017

Find Your Rhythm at These Five Historic Jazz Clubs

The exterior of Village Vanguard.

photo by: Zhang Yu/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Of all the kinds of music you can listen to today, few are more quintessentially American than jazz. Besides the fact that it originated in early-20th century New Orleans and was influenced by musicians from a wide range of cultures and backgrounds, jazz has always been known for its improvisatory nature. Performers constantly experiment on stage, adding their own flair to every song. No performance is the same as the last. At its core, jazz is a mode of personal expression; what could be more American than that?

In addition to dance halls and speakeasies, dedicated jazz clubs were one of the central locations where people could gather to enjoy the finest performers in the genre. Here are five of the most iconic clubs from across the country, all of which remain open today and are must-visits for any jazz lover.

Village Vanguard (pictured above)

Many well-known jazz clubs call New York City home, reflective of its historic reputation as a jazz hotbed. But only one can claim to be the city’s oldest, and that club is the Village Vanguard. Referred to by some as the “Carnegie Hall of Cool,” the Village Vanguard was founded by Max Gordon in 1935 and has stood at the forefront of Greenwich Village’s jazz scene ever since.

Luminaries such as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane all spent time as part of the club’s roster of regular performers, and both Judy Holliday and Harry Belafonte first made names for themselves within its walls. The Vanguard has also hosted performances from folk artists such as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie.

The interior of Little Gem Saloon

photo by: Infrogmation of New Orleans/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Little Gem Saloon

While New Orleans remains the epicenter of jazz, most of the clubs from jazz’s earliest days were closed or demolished long ago. Little Gem Saloon, which first opened in 1903, should have been one of them. After stints as a pawn shop, musicians’ lounge, and R&B club, the saloon closed and was boarded up for close to 40 years. But the Bazan family, its newest owners, recognized the significance of the location and, using Historic Tax Credits, commenced rehabilitation efforts in 2012. By the end of the year, the Little Gem Saloon had made its triumphant return as a multi-level restaurant (with live jazz music, of course).

The original saloon was part of the 400 block of South Rampart Street, considered by historians to be jazz’s true birthplace. It served as the main hangout and performance venue for the legendary Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden from 1904 to 1909.

The interior of Andy's Jazz Club.

photo by: Andy's Jazz Club

Andy’s Jazz Club

Andy’s Jazz Club in the River North district of Chicago bears the name of its founder, who opened the location as a saloon in 1951, but the person responsible for transforming it into the famed jazz haven it’s known as today is Scott Chisholm. Chisholm took on the responsibility of running Andy’s in 1975, and soon began bringing in folk and blues musicians in to provide customers with live music. Jazz promoter Penny Tyler and guitarist John Defauw prodded him to feature more jazz performers, and after seeing Defauw’s group become one of his most popular, Chisholm concurred.

Over the years, up-and-coming talents such as trumpeter Corey Wilkes, saxophonist Frank Catalano, and pianist Marcus Roberts have graced Andy’s stage before catapulting to jazz stardom. Andy’s popularity has continued to grow, and the club still hosts two full bands every day.

A performance at the Lighthouse Cafe.

photo by: InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The Lighthouse Cafe

“What do you mean, you hate jazz?” Ryan Gosling, who plays a passionate jazz pianist, asks Emma Stone in the Oscar-winning film La La Land. Stone’s character, an up-and-coming actress, has just confessed her distaste for the mellow, unexciting style of jazz she is familiar with. To convince her otherwise, Gosling takes her to The Lighthouse Cafe, situated at the foot of the Hermosa Pier in Hermosa Beach, California.

The Lighthouse first showcased jazz musicians in 1949, and it became one of the West Coast’s most famous jazz clubs from the 1950s through the 1970s. While it has since branched out and now welcomes musicians from many other genres, the cozy venue remains an iconic part of the jazz scene in Southern California.

The exterior of Minton's Playhouse.

photo by: Hoops Hooley/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Minton’s Playhouse

First opening its doors in 1938, Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem is notable for being the birthplace of bebop, a faster style of jazz characterized by complex rhythms and harmonies. Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, two of bebop’s foremost pioneers, made regular appearances throughout its rise in the 1940s, along with famed musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Minton’s was forced to close in 1974 due to a fire, but after a few failed attempts at restoration and revival, its current owners successfully brought it back to life in 2013. Today, visitors to the historic club enjoy Afro-Asian-American cuisine with a healthy heaping of live jazz, catching a glimpse of its mid-century heyday.

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Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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