Duke Ellington’s popular tune “Take the ‘A’ Train” succinctly sums up the state of today’s New York jazz scene: Get to Harlem now, because changing landscape and bumps in the road notwithstanding, it’s as vibrant a place for an unforgettable show as it was in the golden age of jazz.
To get a sense of the neighborhood and city’s relationship with the musical genre, travel back in time to 1917 when the inaugural notes were struck in New York’s jazz history. That was the year the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded what’s considered to be the first jazz album on the Victor label. From the 1920s onward, the Big Apple, with Harlem at its center, catapulted the music into a vital American art form, from the emergence of bebop through the historic jam sessions in the 1940s. For years, legendary Harlem clubs had Downtown crowds streaming Uptown to hear big names. Unfortunately, many of the most famous—The Cotton Club (1923-1940), Smalls’ Paradise (1925-1986), the Savoy Ballroom (1926-1958), Minton’s Playhouse (1938-1974) and Lenox Lounge (1942-2012)—are among the neighborhood’s list of dearly departed.
Despite these closures, the soul of Harlem has not gone silent; it’s just singing a slightly different tune. Today’s scene is smaller, more intimate and punctuated by a few standout low-cost or free festivals that deliver the best in jazz today. Jazz fans will have to stay tuned for future developments around a projected reopening of the legendary Minton’s Playhouse and Lenox Lounge (the kerfuffle between its landlord and the bar’s old operator that shuttered the Lenox is ongoing), but in the meantime, you don’t need a time machine to experience an incredible cultural experience. Jazz is alive and well in Harlem and here’s where you can find it.
Showmans Jazz Club
A jazz bar through and through, Showmans has been impressing jazz fans since 1942 when it was located next to the Apollo Theater. Over the years, it has hosted numerous legends, including Duke Ellington, Eartha Kitt and Sarah Vaughn. A loyal crew of regulars still gathers around the well-worn bar to toast the local talent that hits the small stage (complete with a Hammond B-3 organ) in three energetic sets Wednesday through Saturday night. It’s a mellow, homey affair in the wood-paneled room where proprietors Al Howard and Mona Lopez and staff welcome guests with open arms, strong drinks and even, occasionally, homemade food set out near the bar. There is no cover charge, but a two-drink minimum per set is enforced. Closed Sundays. 375 W. 125th St., 212-864-8941, showmansjazzclub.com
Since its opening in 2007, this new-school music venue has brought a young, cutting-edge vibe to the storied Harlem jazz scene. Many of its live performances run from indie rock to R&B, and events cross into film, theater and dance, but there’s also plenty of live jazz, much of it with a world music edge. Despite its intimate environs, there’s room for dancing between walls and columns peppered with vintage album covers. To keep the energy up, many turn to cocktails such as the mango mojito, while cross-cultural bar food such as the Harlem fish, served with couscous and salad, keeps revelers fueled late into the Harlem night. The club is open until 4am, seven nights a week, and is cash only. 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd., 212-690-7807, www.shrinenyc.com
Ginny’s Supper Club
This stylish, classy lounge underneath Marcus Samuelsson’s always hopping restaurant, Red Rooster Harlem, is the most recent entry into the Harlem scene. Its devotion to bringing back the old-school vibe of jazz supper clubs shows in its top-notch lineup, as Ginny’s books performers the likes of Arturo O’Farrill Trio, Tammy McCann and Eunice Newkirk. Custom cocktails don’t come cheap—the Harlem Mule made with Japanese whiskey, ginger, basil and Peychaud’s bitters is $15—and there’s the option for a full dinner or dessert from an abbreviated version of the soulful upstairs menu (deviled eggs, fried chicken and waffles, steak frites). The cover charge usually ranges from $10 to $20, but there’s no drink minimum. Open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday at 7pm and only open Sundays for gospel brunch from 11am to 3:30pm. 310 Lenox Ave.,212-421-3821, ginnyssupperclub.com
Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s
Every Sunday Marjorie Eliot throws opens the doors of her apartment to anyone who wants to experience the most intimate jazz show in the city. From 4 to 6pm, a revolving crew of performers takes center stage with Eliot on piano. You might be treated to classic sax solos or glorious gospel tunes by Ms. Eliot’s son. Get there on the earlier side to get a good seat, but feel free to show up any time during the afternoon, as you’ll always be welcomed with a big smile by the loyal crew of volunteers and regulars. Admission is free, but a hat is passed for donations during the brief intermission. 555 Edgecombe Ave., Apt. 3F, 212-781-6595
The notable Bill Paxton, a born and raised Harlem saxophonist, has hosted one of the more unusual jazz shows in New York since 2006. Enter this private ground floor apartment in a brownstone on a classic urban block for an unforgettable speakeasy-style performance. With a single row of chairs as the setup, everyone gets the best seat in the house for the energetic, up-tempo shows. Bill performs every Friday night with a rotating lineup of guests, and doors open at 8:30pm for two shows at 9 and 11pm. Admission is $20, and you can make reservations online; note that it’s bring-your-own beer and wine if you want something to drink. 148 W 133rd St., billsaxton.com/billsplace.html
National Jazz Museum
This grassroots Harlem museum is keeping the flame alive by preserving and promoting the art of jazz with educational talks and live concerts throughout the neighborhood. The center is open to the public Monday through Friday from 10am to 4pm, and self-guided tours are by donation. The museum also organizes frequent jazz shows, but times and locations vary, so check the website for details. 104 E. 126th St., Suite 2D, jazzmuseuminharlem.org
Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival
Every spring this exciting series of jazz concerts hits a rotating list of venues. In 2013, spectators can check out the six-day festival (May 6 through 11) at the likes of Showmans, Harlem Stage Gatehouse, Alhambra Theatre, Ginny’s Supper Club and the Apollo Theater and groove to a solid lineup featuring up-and-coming talent such as saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin alongside established jazz legends such as pianist Junior Mance and vocalist Dianne Reeves. Tickets are cheap at $10, and some performances are free. The mix of venues makes it an easy way to explore the best of the Harlem jazz scene over the course of a week. harlemjazzshrines.org
Charlie Parker Jazz Festival
Every August, Marcus Garvey Park hosts this two-day festival in memory of legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker’s birthday, which is Aug. 29. The hotly anticipated (and free!) fest draws jazz fans from around the city for what feels like one great big community block party. It’s put on by the nonprofit City Parks Foundation and past performers have included some of the biggest names in the trade such as Cassandra Wilson, Roy Haynes and Gary Bartz. Get there an hour or two before showtime for the best view, and check the website in case of inclement weather. cityparksfoundation.org/calendar/charlie-parker-jazz-festival
The not-for-profit arts and cultural organization was co-founded by jazz musician and composer Dr. William “Billy” Taylor in 1964 and is still going strong today. Every year, Jazzmobile brings free live jazz to more than 100,000 New Yorkers by hosting events in the parks, streets and assorted venues throughout the city. The group hosts an annual jazz vocal competition, Great Jazz on the Great Hill (in Central Park), and Summerfest, a popular series of jazz events that take place all over New York City, including many shows in Harlem. Check the website for more details. jazzmobile.org