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Roots of Jazz Run Deep in Greenwich Village

Greenwich Village is, in some circles, considered the “Capital of Jazz.” As jazz critic, author, and president of the Jazz Journalists Association Howard Mandel put it: “Greenwich Village is the capital of jazz because it has welcomed adventurous thinking, artistic expression, and audiences eager to hear the best of what’s exciting and new.” Some things never change!

The incredible musical artform has become so universally important that in November of 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially designated April 30 as International Jazz Day in order to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role in uniting people from all corners of the globe.

Today we are pleased to share with you some of the great jazz venues in our neighborhoods, and their importance to the history of music. Some of our great jazz showcases have reopened of late, while others are still closed until further notice.  So while we still cannot pack ourselves into some of the tiny nooks and crannies in our neighborhoods to enjoy music, we can certainly do a virtual tour of the clubs where greatness was born and flourished. 

Village Vanguard

Landmarks in the pantheon of jazz must include the Village Vanguard, which has enriched the world of musicians and listeners from its home at 178 Seventh Avenue since February 23, 1935, when owner Max Gordon opened the doors. The club initially featured a variety of kinds of acts, including folk music, poetry, comedy, and reviews, but switched to a primarily all-jazz format in 1957. Over 100 jazz albums have been recorded at the venue. Perhaps the two most famous engagements in the club’s history are those of Bill Evans and John Coltrane, both in 1961. Wynton Marsalis regularly recorded at the club in the early 1990s. Other musicians to release notable albums recorded live at the Village Vanguard include Dexter Gordon, Art Pepper, Chris Connor, Keith Jarrett, Bill Frisell, Joshua Redman, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Gerry Mulligan, Michel Petrucciani, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Ron Carter, Cedar Walton, Stan Getz, Tommy Flanagan, Barbra Streisand, and Brad Mehldau. Music is currently streaming and live-streaming from the Vanguard at the moment, but we hope for the return of live music in the near future!

Small’s Jazz Club

Small’s Jazz Club, located at 183 West 10th Street, was created in 1994 by Mitchell Borden, a former submariner, registered nurse, philosopher, and jazz violinist.  The original Smalls was a raw basement space that had no liquor license.  Patrons could pay $10 and bring their own beer and come to the club day or night! The economic downturn post-9/11 in New York was a turning point for Smalls. The place went bankrupt and was forced to close in 2002.  In 2007, jazz pianist Spike Wilner and his friend Lee Kostrinsky became partners with Borden and they together restored the club to its former vibrance.  Scores of jazz musicians have played Smalls throughout the years, and it has been a proving ground for artists as well as a social scene for the jazz community. The SmallsLIVE Foundation for Jazz Art & Education is a not-for-profit arts organization whose mission is to subsidize the operation of the venue, recording projects, tours, and educational initiatives. During this Covid-19 pandemic, their mission has been to keep the clubs afloat until regular business can be restored. It has also sponsored live-streamed concerts from the club designed to keep musicians working during this time.  They have also offered emergency aid for jazz musicians in need due to the pandemic. Smalls is open in a limited capacity at the moment!  There is a light at the end of the tunnel indeed.

Smalls Interior

(Le) Poisson Rouge

(Le) Poisson Rouge

Le Poisson Rouge was founded by musicians in 2008 in the heart of the Greenwich Village Historic District at 158 Bleecker street.  The mission of the venue is to reflect the rich musical culture of the city it calls home. While (Le) Poisson Rouge has hosted every musical form from opera to heavy metal, jazz musicians have a home here as well.  (Le) Poisson Rouge (often referred to as LPR) is a music venue and multimedia art cabaret founded in 2008 by Justin Kantor and David Handler in the former space which housed the Village Gate.

Kantor and Handler, both graduates of Manhattan School of Music, founded LPR with the stated desire of creating a venue that would foster the fusion of “popular and art cultures” in music, film, theater, dance, and fine art.  The venue is home to a myriad variety of genres, focusing especially on jazz, classical, new music, avant garde, and indie rock, but also plays host to readings, comedy, film, DJs, parties, & theater.

A number of live albums have been recorded at (Le) Poisson Rouge, including an improvised album by J. Spaceman, and Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble recording of Terry Riley’s In C.

Sadly, some landmarks are gone, only to live on in recordings – like Cafe Society, the groundbreaking club at 1 Sheridan Square.

Cafe Society

Count Basie, Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington, and Mel Powell at Cafe Society

Café Society, the first racially integrated nightclub in New York City, was a groundbreaking institution. Opened in 1938 on Sheridan Square, the existence of Café Society was possible due to the vision of its founder and owner, Barney Josephson, a former shoe salesman, and its location in the welcoming, politically liberal community of Greenwich Village. While Café Society was only open for a little over a decade, its radical politics had an enormous impact, and its legacy lived on long after its doors closed in 1949.

Cafe Society
Charlie Parker

There are also jazz landmarks in our neighborhood officially designated by New York City, like the Avenue B home of Charlie Parker. Parker, a towering figure in American jazz, spent his final years in New York, and lived at 151 Avenue B, in a now-landmarked building often referred to as the “Charlie Parker House,” from 1950 to 1954, one year before his untimely demise. Parker was a prolific jazz saxophonist and composer, and a leading figure in the development of bebop.  He acquired the nickname “Yardbird” early in his career, which was then shortened to “Bird”, which he used for the rest of his life.

Charlie Parker Plaque at 151 Avenue B

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