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Take the giant steps

Hitting a jazz club makes New York sound memorable

Email|Print| Text size + By David French
Globe Correspondent / December 10, 2006

NEW YORK -- My friend and I came up the steps from the basement club elated. We had seen the 14-piece Mingus Big Band from just in front of the stage, where you can feel the bass and the baritone sax, and would almost think you could reach out and grab some of the notes the trumpets were shedding.

It had rained while we were inside and the lights from Times Square reflected off the misty sky and Broadway's slick surface like a scene from a film noir. We said goodnight to the fashionable Tokyo couple who had been seated next to us, then set off into the buzz and shuffle of the city, riding a rush of energy, trying to put into words what we had just seen and wondering what to do next.

It is close to 90 years since the Original Dixieland Jazz Band first caused a sensation in New York playing raucous New Orleans music at Reisenweber's Restaurant, and more than half a century since the heyday of 52d Street's jazz row.

But there is still no better way to get a bite of the Big Apple -- to feel the romance and pulse of the city -- than to spend an evening in one of its many jazz clubs. Whether you reserve seats online to see a legend, or shove bills into a beer pitcher at a basement jam session, at the end of the night you will hail a cab or head to the subway feeling that you have had an unforgettable New York experience.

The biggest problem is deciding where to go. Scattered around the city are scores of venues where you can scratch almost any musical itch, from Dixieland to free jazz. For jazz fans, it's always a thrill to see an artist whose work you know, and weekends are when many clubs put on their big names. However, you can find great music every night, and many places fill the early part of the week with regular acts that have proven drawing power.

Seeing jazz in New York doesn't have to be expensive. For the price of one set of music and a couple of martinis at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, which is perched atop a high-end shopping mall in the Time Warner Center , you could spend two long nights drinking beer in the charmingly shabby jazz cellars of Greenwich Village, or a full week sipping bottled water at The Stone . Students should always ask if discount admissions are offered.

Geographically, there are two main areas for jazz, Greenwich Village and Midtown, both easy to get to by subway. Village spots tend to be smaller and cheaper; Midtown clubs are more upscale and offer food. They are all worth exploring.

Wherever you're going, it's a good idea to call ahead. Ask for a description of the music , confirm price and directions, see if you need reservations, and find out when you should arrive to ensure a good seat. Clubs can get quite crowded, though this makes it easy to start a conversation.

To plan your trip before you get to New York, visit club websites or www.hothousejazz.com . Once in town, you can find jazz listings in the weekly magazine Time Out New York , available at any newsstand, or All About Jazz , or Hot House , given away in most clubs.

Here are some of the essential jazz spots, representing a variety of budgets, locations, and musical identities, with information to help you decide which suits you.

Greenwich Village area

55 Bar

55 Christopher St.

(off Seventh Avenue)

212-929-9883

55bar.com

Subway: 1 to Christopher Street/Sheridan Square

Cheap: Free-$15.

This cozy Prohibition-era basement dive bar is an important destination for serious jazz fans and musicians. It's close to Smalls and Fat Cat, and there is no cover charge for the early set, so you can easily hit more than one spot in a night. Interesting, sometimes edgy, small groups and vocalists change daily, with regular appearances by well-known locals such as Berklee grads/fusion guitar faves Mike and Leni Stern .

Smalls

183 West 10th St.

(off Seventh Avenue)

212-675-7369

fatcatjazz.com

Subway: 1

Moderate: $20 cover includes two drinks.

Shares booking, a website, and, for the moment, one cover charge with Fat Cat (75 Christopher St. at at Seventh Avenue), a grungy subterranean pool hall and music venue around the corner. Together, they constitute a serious jazz scene. Respected young locals like Neal Caine, Ari Hoenig, and Jason Lindner pull serious talent and a jazz-fluent, casual crowd into their vortex. Late sets can go until closing , making this the ideal destination for night owls.

Village Vanguard

178 Seventh Ave. (at 11th Street)

212-255-4037

villagevanguard.com

Subway: 1, 2, or 3 to 14th Street

Expensive: $30-$35 cover includes two drinks.

Almost certainly the most significant surviving club in jazz history, the Vanguard has been here since 1935. John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, and Wynton Marsalis are a few of the many giants who have recorded live albums here. They pack you in like cattle, but the music is typically world class, and the room itself is hallowed ground. The Grammy-winning Vanguard Jazz Orchestra , a dynamic 18-piece big band that plays every Monday, continues to impress four decades after it was founded by Thad Jones and Mel Lewis .

Midtown and vicinity
Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola

Time Warner Center

Broadway and 60th Street

(5th floor)

212-258-9595

jalc.org

Subway: 1, A, B, C, or D to 59th Street/Columbus Circle

Expensive: $30 plus drink minimum.

Dizzy's looks like a jazz club in a slick Hollywood thriller. The room is intimately lighted, the walls are curved like a modernist swimming pool, and behind the band a wall of plate glass looks out on Central Park and the Trump Tower. It's a little stiff -- the musicians seem as if they are on their best behavior, and between songs you could hear a guitar pick hit the floor -- but the music is always top-notch, swinging mainstream jazz. It's a good place to lay down the company card or take someone special for a night on the town.

Iridium

1650 Broadway (at 51st Street)

212-582-2121

iridiumjazzclub.com

Subway: B, D, or E to Seventh Avenue; 1 or C to 50th Street

Expensive: $22.50-$35 plus drink minimum.

Tuesdays here are perhaps the best regular night of jazz in New York. The Mingus Big Band rocks the house with Charles Mingus's uproarious, soulful, swinging compositions. Iridium is near Times Square, a short walk from many midtown hotels, and books some of the best musicians in the world. Mondays are also popular, when 91-year-old guitar legend and wiseacre Les Paul hosts a steady stream of visiting players and comedians.

Jazz Standard

116 East 27th St.

212-576-2232

jazzstandard.net

Subway: 6 to 28th St.

Moderate: $15-$30.

This East Side basement club is close to perfect. The vibe is casual but sophisticated, the BBQ alone (from Danny Meyer's Blue Smoke restaurant upstairs) is worth the trip, and they consistently book some of the most important musicians . Almost every seat is good, though you really feel special leaning back on the red banquette that runs along one wall.

Farther afield
Barbès

376 9th St. at 6th Avenue

(in Brooklyn's Park Slope)

718-965-9177

barbesbrooklyn.com

Subway: F to Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn

Cheap: $8 donation for most events.

Since it seems so many jazz musicians live in Brooklyn, it makes sense to go to the source. This charming French-themed bar has a tiny back-room performance space with a homey vibe and a ridiculously eclectic performance calendar. Parisian swing, Balkan brass bands, Brazilian forro , and adventurous and often unclassifiable new jazz are all featured regularly. A week spent here would be like a trip around the world. Well worth the 20-minute subway ride from Manhattan.

Lenox Lounge

288 Lenox Ave. at 124th Street

212-427-0253

lenoxlounge.com

Subway: 2 or 3 to 125th Street

Cheap to moderate: Free-$25 plus drink minimum.

A great excuse to see a bit of Harlem. Just off the fast-redeveloping main drag of 125th Street and not far from the historic Apollo Theater and the black monolith that houses former President Clinton's office, this recently restored Art Deco gem looks like a 1930s movie set. Billie Holiday and Miles Davis performed here ; the regular schedule now mixes local headliners with vocalists, organ grooves, and R&B nights.

Smoke

2751 Broadway at 105th Street

212-864-6662

smokejazz.com

Subway: 1 to 103 d Street

Cheap to moderate: Free-$25.

An intimate room that has good, fun music every night of the week. Something about this place -- maybe the velvet couches, or that it feels hidden away on the Upper West Side -- makes it a great date destination. Hard bop legends like pianist Cedar Walton often headline on weekends; Tuesdays and Wednesdays are defined by the groovy sound of the Hammond B 3 organ.

Tonic

107 Norfolk St. (between Delancey and Rivington streets)

212-358-7501

tonicnyc.com

Subway: F to Delancey

Cheap: $5-$10.

This is the most important venue for "downtown," "avant ," or otherwise unclassifiable jazz in New York. John Zorn and Marc Ribot have played here many times. More like a rock club in feel, with hand stamps and a bar that sells a lot of beer, this former industrial space is on a suitably desolate , out-of-the-way block. It is a classic hangout for hip Lower East Siders and experimental music fans.

The Stone

Avenue C at 2d Street

( no phone)

thestonenyc.com

Subway: F, V to Second Avenue

Cheap: $10 most nights.

No-frills, no refreshments, non profit space established by avant jazz giant and saxophonist John Zorn. Fans of challenging and experimental music should check the website and consider making the hike into the far East Village for this unique -- if utilitarian -- musical setting that recalls the 1970s Loft Scene.

Keep in mind
Birdland

315 West 44th St. (between Eighth and Ninth avenues)

212-581-3080

birdlandjazz.com

Subway: A, C, or E to 42 d Street; 1, 2, or 3 to Times Square

Expensive: $20-$50 plus minimum.

This Theater District stalwart is notable for often featuring Broadway and jazz vocalists in addition to leading jazz and Latin jazz stars. David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band serves up sizzling happy hour jazz every Wednesday. Big band swing aficionados should check out David Berger's Sultans of Swing on Tuesday nights.

The Blue Note

131 West 3d St. (at Sixth Avenue)

212-475-8592

bluenote.net

Subway: A, B, C, D, E, F, and V to West 4th Street

Expensive: $20-$40 plus minimum.

One of the world's best-known clubs books some of the biggest names in jazz. On weekends, the Late Night Groove Series begins at 12:30 a.m. and mixes jazz and R&B for a low cover charge.

Contact David French, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, at davidfrench@mindspring.com.

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