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Regarding live jazz in NYC, the greatest revelation is that one could start early, end late, and not spend a lot of money: checking out 5 or 6 different clubs all over the city. There are great, relatively expensive world famous clubs like the Village Vanguard, Birdland Jazz Club, Blue Note, Dizzy's, Iridium, Jazz Standard, and Smoke, which regularly present legendary performers.
In the West Village (Greenwich Village around Sheridan Square at 7th Ave. South) there is an explosion of jazz clubs all within a few blocks of each other with free sets of top shelf live jazz (and some blues/R&B/gospel/showtune sing-a-longs/ even chamber music) available. Some of the clubs listed just ask for a 2 drink minimum; one just asks for $3 and is all ages;and a couple have free early sets and charge a $10 - $20 cover for several hours of live music after their earlier free sets. FYI: All these clubs and more are listed on the web, and this is a collection of some in Greenwich Village and Harlem.
Fat Cat: $3, all ages, has pool, ping pong, shuffle board, board games and music typically going from 7PM - 3AM ending in a jam session.
Smalls: Free sets as early as 4PM, $10-$20 after 7:30PM. Students welcome. Standard bearer for the neighborhood jazz scene. After-hours jam session nightly. Check out their sister club across 7th Ave named for Mezz Mezzrow, the famed musician and author of everybody's favorite jazz memoir, Really the Blues. You'll be delighted to find their happy hour set most nights from 8-9 featuring phenomenal talent on piano or guitar.
Arthurs Tavern: Always free, oldest club in NYC, with a variety of jazz/blues/house rockers/R&B and the longest running trad jazz band in the city (going on over 50 years).
55 Bar: Free early sets, $10 or so for later sets. Off-off Broadway home to guitarist, Mike Stern. Historic divey venue most likely to plug in.
For standing around a piano singing showtunes in an ancient Village basement there's Marie's Crisis Cafe, next door to Arthur's Tavern; and more visibly, on the corner of Christopher and 7th is the Duplex piano bar and cabaret. And for showtune-less piano, try Mezzrow on 7th and 10th.
(Oh yeah, and you don't want to miss out on free, old-school jazz every Sunday 8PM-11PM at the Ear Inn on Spring street. Get there early enough to score a table by trumpeter/bandleader Jon-Erik Kellso and guitarist Matt Munisteri plus an unbelievable roster of special guests musicians rotating through every week). The food is wonderful, and the Ear Inn building is closing in on 200 years of NY history).
A little further off Sheridan Square is The Cornelia Street Cafe with a narrow basement club serving good food and featuring eclectic and esoteric entertainment with a great Village vibe that goes back decades.
A short walk to the east past 6th Ave. will take you to another inexpensive music mecca orbiting around the Blue Note. The jazziest among these are The Bar Next Door on MacDougal, and Zinc Bar on West 3rd - each with excellent jazz credentials and a decidedly more dimly lit, romantic vibe then the places mentioned above, and both featuring vocalists on Monday nights. These clubs have cover charges of $10 -$25 and the Bar Next Door serves limited menu Italian fare.
It should also be noted that the last remaining blues club in the city is Terra Blues on Bleecker Street in a 2nd floor space that has acoustic blues booked from 7:30 and electric blues after 10PM 7 nights a week for $10 all night.
Hidden jazz haunts in the Village heading East that must not go unmentioned are Knickerbocker for knock out duos and trios and steak; The Stone in the East Village for stripped-down, bare-knuckled avant-garde; Jules Bistro for the French perspective; and finally 5C, Nublu, Nuyorican, Also, an underground late night Tuesday trad jazz jam has erupted at Mona's on Ave. B.
The most hidden treasure of midtown is at the Local 802 AFM: Monday Night Jam presented by Jazz Foundation of America: This show has been around for decades. Jazz Foundation hosts a free open jam every Monday 7:00 PM - 9:30 PM. Everyone from big names to up-and-comers come by to hang out and rehearse together. 322 West 48th Street. (212) 245-4802.
Jumping up to Harlem, there is a nice concentration of live jazz venues in the Central Harlem district that made jazz a household word in the post WWI period dubbed The Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The area around the original Swing Street, West 133rd and 7th Ave. (now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd), is home to 6 important joints on the uptown jazz map. All 6 are remarkable in their own way, and all 6 are affordable and supported by the neighborhood as well as visitors from around the world (even without the support of a website in 3 cases). Word of mouth trumps all.
Paris Blues: No cover and Free chicken, rice and beans. Two drink minimum. Live Jazz Bands 7 nights ( 9 PM - 1 AM) a week and three bands on Sunday,alternating Latin Jazz Bands (5-9) and then Melvin Vines and the Harlem Jazz Machine (9 -1). All Bands perform 3 sets and allow instrumentalist and vocalist alike to sit in! This Harlem's oldest and only remaining live Jazz dive and you are like to see Sam Hargress, Owner, Cook and still Manager glad handing the crowd as well as tv, film, and stage and of course Jazz legends in the crowd.
Bill’s Place: $20 cover for 2 sets of no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, blood and guts jazz only on Fridays and Saturdays. Pile in by 9PM for the first set (11PM for the 2nd set), and enjoy the one-of-a-kind fantasy of hearing Bill Saxton and the Young Musicians of New York that he discovers, deliver the goods in a 1920's prohibition era speakeasy right on 133rd Street. 148 W.133rd Street, said to be the place where Billie Holiday was discovered by John Hammond in the early 30's.
American Legion Post #398 : Free music and cheap, great soul food and drinks. This military veterans member only club boasts one of Harlem's remaining two Hammond B3 organs getting a regular work-out in an uptown jazz joint. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. You are welcome but don't forget to sign the guest book upon entering. 248 West 132nd Street.
Shrine : Free music of any and all stripes lined up one after the other 7 nights a week. This restaurant/club stands alone as a youthful enterprize that attracts people of all ages and keeps the party thumping with loud djing between bands, and a whirling lights and fog display not found in any other NYC jazz venue. Named as an homage to Fela Anikulapo Kuti's Lagos, Nigeria Afrobeat club of the same name. 2271 7th Ave. (ACP Blvd.) blvd
Cassandra's Jazz Club: Across the street from the Shrine is a true Jazz Jewel. You will hear some of the best jazz in Harlem in a sophisticated, laid back setting. AMAZING pianist every Saturday. Please check it out and tip well: the bartender is Cassandra herself!
NAMA (New Amsterdam Musical Association): Monday evening jam sessions at this 100 + year old spot is your link to a time when black musicians had to form their own union and take care of their own. Firmly rooted in Central Harlem since its musical heyday, NAMA's evident faded glory is worn as a badge of honor by the fine musicians who are currently making the scene. 107 West 130th Street
449 LA Scat : $10 cover charge on music nights from Thursday - Sunday excluding the coldest winter months when the club is on hiatus. The talent ranges from old masters that grace the covers of well loved lp records from the 60's to the neighborhood musicians, singers and poets trying to get a foothold in a career on its way up or contentedly plateaued. 449 Lenox Ave.
Other noteworthy venues outside of this historic jazz vortex including those on Harlem's main drag of 125th Street are Showman's: since 1942 with free live jazz Friday and Saturday (and Harlem's other Hammond B3 organ) at 375 West 125th Street; Apollo Theater : still hosting the crucible for the 20th century's most influential pop artists: Wednesday's Amateur Night, which has been creating legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder and Lauryn Hill since its debut in 1934 -- at 253 W125th Street; Ironically, Red Rooster, the most expensive, celebrity hideout in Harlem does not charge a cover nor accept reservations for Sunday and Monday jazz nights in their welcoming street level lounge -- 310 Lenox Ave. Their downstairs venue, Ginny's Supper Club, does charge $10-$25 for their live performances. Most impactful of all affordable jazz venues in Harlem is Parlor Entertainment, which is a rite of passage for all uptown music lovers. Every Sunday at 3:30PM since 1991, people in the know have been heading to 555 Edgecombe Ave. and buzzing #107 for apt. #3F to be let into the free weekly jazz recital led by Marjorie Eliot in her home at the legendary Triple Nickel apartment building.
To cut to the chase and be escorted by experts in scouting out which venue has the best talent on any given night, check out Big Apple Jazz Tours' Harlem Juke Joint Tour - lots of great history and three underground clubs explored nightly.
Central Park: If you're in town in August, look for the free annual Great Jazz on the Great Hill festival. Bring your dancing shoes and a picnic, or buy food from one of the food trucks on site. Family activities take place all day long. Enter the Park at 106th Street and Central Park West