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The State of Jazz Clubs: Chicago and New York


I was attending a wonderful show by vocalist Arlene Bardelle and I reflected on the unique perspective that my wife and I (as well as a few others) have from observing the jazz scenes of both the windy city and the big apple.  As jazz clubs continue to financially tread water, refine their lineups to fit more popular tastes, or simply close down, many in the jazz community question what makes a successful jazz club.  Furthermore, what makes an artistically successful jazz club?  What makes a financially successful jazz club?  Are the two irreconcilable?

Many of the best New York jazz clubs such as the Village Vanguard, Birdland, Smoke, the Kitano, the Jazz Standard, and the Blue Note have what might be called a strict set policy.  Usually there are two or three sets per night, sometimes with a late night set by a different artist.  Individuals are sometimes allowed to step inside in the middle of a set but, often, they are not allowed to automatically stay through the next set (unless one pays extra).  Furthermore, extended stays by artists are becoming more and more unusual in New York.  Occasionally, one sees a week-long stay by Cedar Walton (thank goodness, he is one of the greatest living pianists and a constant inspiration) at the Village Vanguard, but artists rarely get more than a night or two at a given venue.  What is even more interesting is that many of these venues are outstanding at enforcing a quiet policy with the audience, thus allowing seminal artists such as Cedar Walton to focus on music making.

In Chicago, one gets the sense that things are a bit more “old school”…maybe it’s the Old Style beer and the Italian beef sandwiches.  Chicago also has its share of wonderful jazz clubs such as the Green Mill, the Jazz Showcase, Andy’s, Katerina’s, M Lounge, Pete Miller’s, and Serbian Village.  However, I can’t think of a club that has a strict set policy.  In fact, it’s almost like the way old movie theatres used to work.  Audience members can arrive at any point in a set and stay for as long as they want.  Extended stays are quite more common in Chicago clubs, particularly at a venue like the Green Mill, which features Kimberly Gordon every Sunday, the band Sabertooth every Saturday, the Deep Blue Organ Trio every Tuesday…you get the idea.

But, really how much similarity is there between the current crop of clubs and venues of yore such as the Five Spot and Minton’s Playhouse.  How do older, newer, hipper, fondly remembered clubs of the 80’s/mid-90’s such as Bradley’s figure into the mix?  Also, as I stated before, not all clubs can be pigeonholed in these unfair, snapshot city classifications.  Smalls, under the leadership of Spike Wilner, is one of the great New York small business stories in the history of the city.  Smalls does not have a strict set policy, has afternoon jam sessions, webcast concerts (which, happily, people from Chi-town can watch!), archived recorded performances, and a line of live CD’s recorded and sold at the venue….whew!  Other excellent clubs such as the Fat Cat and the 55 Bar also do not follow the model of Birdland or the Village Vanguard.  However, I feel that the structural elements of a jazz venue are always critical to the way that a jazz community functions and interconnects.  I also feel that this dichotomy is important fodder for discussion for those of us who love this music and wish to sustain venues that feature it.