Stung by rising rents that have led to the demise of landmarks such as CBGB, the Garage and Sweet Basil and put the Cornelia Street Café in a precarious position, Greenwich Village is not as bohemian as it used to be. But the neighborhood is arguably still one of the city’s most important places to hear live jazz.
The pricier standbys are the 82-year-old Village Vanguard, where the lines still overflow onto Seventh Avenue, the Duplex and the Blue Note, whose big-name acts this month include Chick Corea and David Sanborn. Then there are the more diverse options tucked away on the meandering streets of the West Village. LLNYC recently sampled a few noteworthy places that offer big band, funk and fusion and rate a trip Downtown. Here are a few to check out.
55 Bar, 55 Christopher Street, 212-929-9883, www.55bar.com | Sure, it’s a dive, but this Prohibition era-style basement bar, located next to the Stonewall Inn, is about as old-school Greenwich Village jazz as it gets. The place has been around since 1919 and offers jazz and blues nightly. In addition to hearing young newcomers and regular acts like McSweeney’s Urban Fado Project and Kim Thompson, visitors who stop by at the right time (usually Monday and Wednesday nights) might spot Miles Davis’s former guitarist Mike Stern working out. Open daily between 3 p.m. and 3 a.m.
Smalls, 183 West 10th Street, 212-252-5091, www.smallslive.com | This cozy basement boîte with mismatched chairs and benches resembles an underground speakeasy and favors mostly young, emerging artists such as Benny Benack and Pasquale Grasso, whose styles veer toward traditional swing, modern and post-bebop. Opened in 1994 on the former site of Lenny’s Hideaway, a popular playwrights’ hangout favored by Edward Albee and Tallulah Bankhead, Smalls first gained a substantial following as an after-hours club where musicians often played until 8 in the morning. Now it doubles as rehearsal space in the daytime. Plus, fans can watch live streams of shows on the club’s website.
“Thanks to high-end restaurants like Bobo, Bar 13
and Mary’s Fish Camp, Smalls now has customers
who think nothing of coming in after dinner
and spending a hundred dollars.”
Even though Smalls needs to make $3,000 a night just to break even, there’s a good reason founder Mitch Borden charges only a $20 cover with a one- drink minimum: “I wanted to try to keep the prices down in order to attract a hipper, more diverse crowd [to a show] that jazz enthusiasts and musicians could afford.”
Like other Greenwich Village veterans, Borden, a jazz violinist and high school friend of Bruce Springsteen’s, bemoans the gentrification that has forced so many of the nabe’s famed nightspots to shutter in recent years. But he also said the infusion of affluence has had its advantages. “It’s definitely made the area a lot safer, which is a good thing. So has having high-end restaurants like Bobo, Bar 13 and Mary’s Fish Camp because we now have customers who think nothing of coming in after dinner and spending a hundred dollars. We deal with the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich.”
Fat Cat, 75 Christopher Street, 212-675-6056, www.fatcatmusic.org | Once a roller disco and a bowling alley, this cavernous club, which Borden opened in 2002, features three bands a night, including a nightly jam session that runs until 4 a.m. Acts in September will include Noller/Sylla, the Jordan Pettay Band and the Gary Fisher Trio. Before you settle into your seats (and even during the show), you can shoot pool or get in a round of ping-pong or Foosball. There are even tables for chess, checkers and backgammon.
Mezzrow, 163 West 10th Street, 646-476-4346, www.mezzrow.com | If you’re looking for a slightly more subdued environment, check out Mezzrow, the companion to Smalls that Borden and musician Spike Wilner opened in 2014. Billed as “a musical environment run for musicians by musicians,” it’s named after clarinetist Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who was Louis Armstrong’s personal assistant. Furnished with red leather banquettes, the club has recently hosted such performers as Ron Carter, Kenny Barron and Joanne Brackeen.
Arthur’s Tavern, 57 Grove Street, 212-675-6879, www.arthurstavernnyc.com | If consistency is what you’re looking for, then check out this dusty West Village haunt that’s been around since 1937. Past headliners include Charlie Parker and Roy Hargrove. Today, it’s a favorite among celebrities (Whoopi Goldberg, Katy Perry and Cuba Gooding Jr. have all visited within the past year), and owner Nick Cranston prides himself on the fact that you can see the same acts every week.
The longest playing act is a New Orleans-style Dixieland band the Groove Street Stompers, which has played every Monday night for the past 50 years. On other nights, there’s jazz, rhythm and blues and funk from regulars such as Eve Silber and Stew Cutler & Friends. Patrons often get up and dance in this dark, smoky dive that’s decorated with old reviews and Christmas ornaments that stay up year-round. Be sure to bring plenty of cash; Arthur’s doesn’t take credit cards, and musicians pass around a tip jar during their sets.