Big Apple Jazz Tours' Take on Affordable Live Jazz in Harlem, New York City
Regarding live jazz in NYC the greatest revelation is that one could start early and end late, checking out 5 or 6 different clubs all over the city and not spend a lot of money. There are great, relatively expensive, world famous clubs like the Village Vanguard, Birdland, Blue Note, Dizzy's, Iridium, Jazz Standard, and now Smoke and Lenox Lounge (on the weekends), which present legendary performers regularly, but that only scratches the surface of what's available in Manhattan alone.
Jumping up to Harlem, there is a nice concentration of live jazz venues in the Central Harlem district that made jazz a household word in the post WWI period dubbed The Jazz Age by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The area around the original Swing Street, West 133rd and 7th Ave. (now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd), is home to 5 important joints on the uptown jazz map. All 5 are remarkable in their own way, and all 5 are affordable and supported by the neighborhood as well as visitors from around the world (even without the support of a website in 3 cases). Word of mouth trumps all.
Bill’s Place: $20 cover for 2 sets of no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners, blood and guts jazz only on Fridays. Bring your own booze, pile in by 9PM for the first set (11PM for the 2nd set), and enjoy the one-of-a-kind fantasy of hearing Bill Saxton and the Young Musicians of New York that he discovers, deliver the goods in a 1920's prohibition era speakeasy right on 133rd Street. 148 W.133rd Street.
American Legion Post #398: Free music and cheap, great soul food and drinks. This military veterans member only club boasts one of Harlem's remaining two Hammond B3 organs getting a regular work-out in an uptown jazz joint. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. You are welcome but don't forget to sign the guest book upon entering. 248 West 132nd Street.
Shrine: Free music of any and all stripes lined up one after the other 7 nights a week. This restaurant/club stands alone as a youthful enterprize that attracts people of all ages and keeps the party thumping with loud djing between bands, and a whirling lights and fog display not found in any other NYC jazz venue. Named as an homage to Fela Anikulapo Kuti's Lagos, Nigeria Afrobeat club of the same name. 2271 7th Ave. (ACP Blvd.) blvd
NAMA (New Amsterdam Musical Association): Monday evening jam sessions at this 100 + year old spot is your link to a time when black musicians had to form their own union and take care of their own. Firmly rooted in Central Harlem since its musical heyday, NAMA's evident faded glory is worn as a badge of honor by the fine musicians who are currently making the scene. 107 West 130th Street
449 LA Scat: $10 cover charge on music nights from Thursday - Sunday excluding the coldest winter months when the club is on hiatus. The talent ranges from old masters that grace the covers of well loved lp records from the 60's to the neighborhood musicians, singers and poets trying to get a foothold in a career on its way up or contentedly plateaued. 449 Lenox Ave.
Other noteworthy venues outside of this historic jazz vortex including those on Harlem's main drag of 125th Street are Showman's: since 1942 with free live jazz Tuesday through Saturday (and Harlem's other Hammond B3 organ) at 375 West 125th Street; Apollo Theater: still hosting the crucible for the 20th century's most influential pop artists: Wednesday's Amateur Night, which has been creating legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Stevie Wonder and Lauryn Hill since its debut in 1934 -- at 253 W125th Street; Lenox Lounge: open in its original location and decked out in its original art deco splendor since 1939 (although rumored to be losing its lease in 2012). If the Lenox Lounge survives in its current configuration check it out Mondays through Thursdays for the affordable sets and midnights on Friday and Saturday for old school, after hours jam sessions which will be hard to replace -- 288 Lenox Ave. There's also free live music at one of Harlem's best kept secrets for a delicious soul food fusion, Mo'Bay, where, if you're already well fed, you can sit at the bar and enjoy the music while sipping fine cocktails -- 17 West 125th Street. Ironically, Red Rooster, the most expensive, celebrity hideout in Harlem does not charge a cover nor accept reservations for Sunday and Monday jazz nights in their welcoming lounge -- 310 Lenox Ave. Also, no slouch in the food department is Spanish Harlem's Creole, a restaurant and intermittent jazz club that charges only $10 cover for music nights - NE corner of 118th and 3rd Ave. Most impactful of all affordable jazz venues in Harlem is Parlor Entertainment, which is a rite of passage for all uptown music lovers. Every Sunday at 4PM since 1991, people in the know have been heading to 555 Edgecombe Ave. and buzzing apt. #3F to be let into the free weekly jazz recital led by Marjorie Eliot in her home at the legendary Triple Nickel apartment building.
Within a few blocks of each other south of 125th Street, Old Harlem charm and New Harlem pizazz is on exhibit with free live jazz now being presented at Paris Blues (121st and 7th Ave) and Harlem Tavern (116th and 8th Ave.). Paris Blues has been in the neighborhood since the late 60's but only recently added live jams on a regular basis. Harlem Tavern is a beautiful beer garden with a fine menu and New Orleans brass band sounds on Wednesdays and a variety of jazz stylings for Tuesday nights and weekend brunches.