Syncopated Scenes : All over Manhattan, jazz is smokin’ in familiar basements, and in new, smoke-free clubs

Gourse is a New York freelance writer and author of nine books on jazz

Sonny Canterino, who until 1974 owned and operated New York’s Half Note jazz club where legendary saxophonist John Coltrane often played, now loves to go out to jazz clubs at least once a week with friends. I see him all the time at sleek little Bradley’s near New York University, the famed Village Vanguard and the regal Tavern on the Green. Recently he leaned over to me from a nearby table at the Tavern and quipped: “I had monk fish--Thelonious Monkfish. It’s really good, ‘round about midnight.”

These are the kinds of cats you rub elbows with at New York’s most important jazz clubs: the real thing, the experts, the stars. In places where booze and cigarettes were once the sustenance of choice, even the food has taken on new importance and some of the clubs actually forbid smoking . . . except in the bars, of course.

Whether dark or brightly lighted, many of the often pretty, modern jazz clubs have comfortable tables and chairs. Everything is clean. And the acoustic jazz, most of it swing era or bebop-rooted--which New Yorkers favor--is played by some of the best jazz musicians in the world.


The scene has come nearly full circle since I started haunting jazz clubs in the 1950s and writing about jazz in the ‘70s. The atmosphere in some of them now reminds me of the elegance of the lovely Upper East Side supper club, the Embers, during the 1950s, when the roast beef was first class and so were the pianists, including Junior Mance and Billy Taylor.

Then came the reign of rock, and that sort of club became rare. What emerged were dingy places with awful, if any, food in out-of-the-way neighborhoods. One of them was Slug’s, a Lower East Side dive with fine music that billed itself as Slug’s in the Far East. The Needle’s Eye on Little West 12th Street also was a glamourless, secret hideaway. Now both places are just memories.


Like many of the best in town these days, Tavern on the Green’s jazz room is a club with everything. In this case that means crystal ceiling and wall chandeliers and a bandstand big enough for the more than 15-piece-strong Illinois Jacquet’s band. It moves in for four weeks at a time and swings so hard audiences think they’re back in the ‘40s. No matter which jazz star takes charge of the bandstand, there’s something about the dynamic blare of a band or the elegance of a seasoned, small group that enhances the effect of the Tavern’s good food.

Pianist Dorothy Donegan is another who has starred here with her trio. (She single-handedly pulled a White House jazz festival out of the doldrums in June 1993.) Tavern crowds cheer for her dazzling, two-handed runs and quick changes from Bach to boogie-woogie. Her wit has a dash of the outrageous. Borrowing from the classics gives her work snob appeal, she said. “It proves you didn’t learn to play in reform school.”

Rivaling the Tavern’s dinners and pastries but a little less pricey is Zinno. Consider Zinno’s tartufo: a chocolate and vanilla ice cream ball covered with chocolate icing with frozen cherries inside. “A winner all around,” said the Zagat Survey restaurant guide about this Northern Italian restaurant that has blossomed into one of the city’s best jazz clubs. Usually piano-bass duos or varied trios are booked.

Zinno copied its successful music format from Bradley’s. That club’s craggy-faced founder, the late Bradley Cunningham, marketed his long, dark paneled room as a Greenwich Village saloon. Since 1969, Bradley’s has attracted a hip, classy clientele by featuring the best jazz pianists, and has become one of the world’s premier piano-bass rooms. Bill Evans, Hank Jones, George Shearing, Jimmy Rowles and Tommy Flanagan all played here. These days, Kenny Barron, one of the best living jazz pianists, with a taut, flowing style, takes over for several weeks a year.


Since the late 1980s, Bradley’s widow, Wendy, has been nurturing the careers of young stars. One of the great new trumpeters, Roy Hargrove, leads groups here. Wynton Marsalis has sat in. Heirs to the jazz piano masters appear regularly: John Hicks, Jacky Terrasson, Cyrus Chestnut, Michael Weiss and Renee Rosnes among them, usually in trios and quartets. Unlike Bradley, Wendy allows drums. But there’s no talking, only whispering during the sets, as a show of respect for the music.

Fans and musicians go to Bradley’s for the third set at 2 a.m. Most other clubs, except for Arthur’s Tavern, Smalls and the Zinc Bar, are closed by then. Bradley’s bar stocks fine brandies; jazz musicians know their brandies, which, it’s often said, they began drinking instead of more mysterious brews when playing in unfamiliar, foreign bars.

The nearby Knickerbocker Bar and Grill admired the success of Bradley’s and hired piano-bass duos while maintaining its primary identity as a restaurant. Its T-bone steaks are a specialty, and people are praising the new chef’s fish entrees.

A popular group here recently was led by the strong, exciting guitarist Russell Malone, who until the early ‘90s played with Harry Connick Jr.’s big band. Judy Carmichael is often booked with saxophonist Mike Hashim. “Count Basie called me Stride,” recalls the curly haired, blond pianist about the mentor who encouraged her to go to New York after hearing her play at Disneyland. She plays the distinctive Harlem stride style popularized in the 1920s and ‘30s by James P. Johnson, Willie (The Lion) Smith and Fats Waller--a style in which the left hand plays chords punctuated by staccato bass notes for a rhythmic lift.

A few blocks away but also in the Village, the Blue Note became the superstar of jazz clubs during the 1980s because the most famous jazz stars work here. It has a high-tech look, with a blue, red and yellow neon mural of the Manhattan skyline on the rear wall. Lionel Hampton and the Golden Men of Jazz have been a staple; Chick Corea packs the place, and the music charge can spike to a whopping $60 for B.B. King and $65 for brother Ray Charles.

The Blue Note takes pains to make some of its food--an excellent salmon, for example--fancy, though the club maintains a loose, convivial air in keeping with its Greenwich Village location. Sunday brunch is both sophisticated and laid-back.

If Iridium--the most popular club outside the Village--can claim a single stroke of brilliance, it was to open across the street from Lincoln Center. That put Iridium in the heart of the action. One night last year, Wynton Marsalis co-hosted a concert at Avery Fisher Hall. His youngest brother, Jason, a drummer, played in the concert. Their pianist father, Ellis, slipped in to see the first hour of the show and guffawed in the seat in front of me when he heard co-host Bill Cosby bang the piano and say Duke Ellington had stolen the weird chords and made “Take the A Train” out of them. Then Ellis headed to Iridium to lead his own jazz trio. A rhythm section lover, I followed him. He’s a legendary teacher in New Orleans, where he built a musical dynasty in his own family. Iridium’s excellent food, such as little pizzas, comes from its exotically decorated restaurant upstairs.


Other recent group leaders at Iridium have been drummer T.S. Monk III--as chatty and warm as his father, the great bebop pianist, was taciturn--and smooth trombonist-arranger Slide Hampton.

For Sunday jazz brunches starring 90-year-old trumpeter Doc Cheatham, Sweet Basil, which hires the same sort of stars for nighttime, is always a good bet. Paraphrasing George Burns, Doc likes to say: “I’m glad to be here. At my age I’m glad to be anywhere.” Doc plays happy, New Orleans-rooted, swing-era jazz with the power of a seasoned young man, pointing the bell of his horn straight at heaven.

Of all of New York’s excellent clubs, jazz fans still regard the modest-looking Village Vanguard as the world’s greatest club--so down to earth that it’s still located in a cellar, where it’s been since 1935. There is no food to be nibbled here. The Vanguard serves only drinks and for musicians, a pot of coffee brews backstage. But the world’s greatest jazz musicians have and continue to play here.

Greenwich Village, which now reigns as jazz’s unofficial headquarters, has the most clubs. And at one of the Village clubs, Visiones, the lineup changes every few days. On Monday nights, Maria Schneider’s Orchestra showcases the work of its gifted leader, a protege of the late Gil Evans. Reservations are suggested.

Arthur’s Tavern has also become a contender. Its new, young owners have given a face-lift to this rollicking piano bar, which features classic jazz and blues every night until 3 a.m. Anyone can sit in to sing or play with the well-reviewed house groups.

Nearby Smalls, a tiny basement club, stays open till dawn. It doesn’t serve alcohol, but you can bring your own and hear young players develop their skills. The club has a new piano, thanks to Wynton Marsalis, and older players teach workshops from noon to 3 p.m.

The Smalls’ workshop organizer, Charles Carisi, and his wife, Kris, also run their own very happening, 2-year-old club, called Zinc Bar, featuring new and world-class guitar players every night. George Benson and Attilah Zoller hang out here on the border of the Village and SoHo, the artists’ neighborhood. The hot guitarist Russell Malone sits in regularly, mesmerizing fans and other guitarists with his chord voicings and charismatic energy. Howard Alden plays here, to name just one of the great guitarists always booked. Pianist Rachel Z, who plays with Wayne Shorter, was at the bar the other night. Like Arthur’s Tavern, the Zinc Bar has palpable energy and appealing informality. Wear your Gap clothes.

At the fascinating jazz performance space, the Knitting Factory, there are three clubs in one trilevel building, deep down in TriBeCa. They present new and traditional jazz by established and experimenting musicians. Even Yoko Ono played here in March. Monday nights belong to jazz saxophonist David Murray’s orchestra. Taxis cruise past this outpost all the time.

On the Upper West Side, jazz clubs are few and far between, but two jazz-with-dinner outposts, Cleopatra’s Needle and Birdland, feature newer players during the week and stars on weekends. One is the great young alto saxophonist Sue Terry.

On the Upper East Side since last September, trumpeter Johnny “Tasty” Parker, who earned his nickname for his delicious, improvised licks, leads the house trio at Sutton Waterlog Hole on Saturday nights.


The fashionable, airy, bi-level City Crab and Seafood Co. near Gramercy Park serves Sunday brunch, along with the Shorty Jackson Legacy Blues Band, including saxophonist Bubba Brooks, who has a poignant sound on “Mood Indigo” that has brought tears to my eyes.

The Five Spot, in an old Midtown ballroom converted to a club at monumental expense, features new players and established stars such as Shirley Horne.

For an exotic excursion, S.O.B.’s (Sounds of Brazil) in SoHo, below the Village, has Latin jazz and Third World, jazz-related music served up with Brazilian and Caribbean cuisine. Celia Cruz and Mighty Sparrow have sung here.

Jazz musicians don’t get rich, and gourmets don’t go to dine, but they always have a good time at Fez. In NoHo/SoHo, (south of the Village and north of SoHo), the downstairs Fez offers pizza and burgers from a sprawling upstairs restaurant, the Time Cafe. It’s the music played by the Mingus Big Band Workshop every Thursday night that supplies the excitement.


GUIDEBOOK: All That Jazz

Getting there: United, American, Continental, TWA, Delta and Tower fly nonstop to New York’s Kennedy Airport or Newark. Lowest advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at $290.

Arthur’s Tavern, 57 Grove St.; tel. (212) 675-6879.

Birdland, 2745 Broadway; tel. (212) 749-2228.

Blue Note, 131 W. Third St.; tel. (212) 475-8592.

Bradley’s, 70 University Place; tel. (212) 228-6440.

City Crab and Seafood Co., 235 Park Ave. S; tel. (212) 529-3800.

Cleopatra’s Needle, 2485 Broadway; tel. (212) 769-6969.

Fez, at the Time Cafe, 380 Lafayette St.; tel. (212) 533-7000.

Five Spot, 4 W. 31st St.; tel. (212) 631-0100.

Iridium, 44 W. 63rd St.; tel. (212) 582-2121.

Knickerbocker Bar and Grill, 33 University Place; tel. (212) 228-8490.

Knitting Factory, 74 Leonard St., four blocks below Canal; tel. (212) 219-3055.

Sutton’s Watering Hole, 209 E. 56th St.; tel. (212) 355-6868.

Sweet Basil, 88 7th Ave. S.; tel. (212) 242-1785.

Tavern on the Green, Central Park West at 67th St.; tel. (212) 873-3200.

Village Vanguard, 178 7th Ave. S.; tel. (212) 255-4037.

Zinno, 126 W. 13th St.; tel. (212) 924-5182.

Smalls, 183 W. 10th St.; tel. (212) 929-7565.

S.O.B. (Sounds of Brazil), 204 Varick St.; tel. (212) 243-4940.

Visiones, 125 MacDougal, at W. 3rd St.; tel. (212) 673-5576.

Zinc Bar, 90 W. Houston St., off LaGuardia Place; tel. (212) 477-8337.