The jazz clubs of New York City have long been the proving grounds for musicians who want to make it big – ever since the Roaring 20s. This was the era when some of the top musicians in Chicago moved to New York. During this time in Harlem a new subculture of nightclubs among the black community was booming. When blues music started to become vogue in the 1920s, Harlem became popular with white tourists who were coming to experience the exotic African-American music.
The Harlem jazz scene was based on piano rather than brass bands and ragtime was very popular. This was also where “stride piano” originated, which meant that the left hand would provide the beat and the right hand improvised the melody. The left hand would “stride” all over the keyboard to provide variation in the beat. This piano technique would create a multi-layered “orchestral” sound, which appealed to piano players who could not afford to hire a backing band.
Stride pianist James Johnson was one of the great composers of the era and Harlem native “Fats” Waller also created an innovative musical fusion of ragtime, blues and stride piano. Another impressive figure was Art Tatum, who arrived in New York in 1932 from Ohio and summarized the styles of the era – then went beyond. He opened up jazz piano to new horizons and his playing had a degree of improvisation that had not been known before.
Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem was an important part of the scene and it was there that the seeds of modern jazz spouted. It was founded in 1938 by Henry Minton, a saxophonist. It was one of the most important jazz houses in Harlem and it established the neighbourhood as a musical hotspot. Some of the hottest names in jazz performed there, including Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Dizzy Gillespie. Minton’s was one of the best places in New York City to catch these musical legends.
This club was also popular throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, when musicians used to come to the club to have jam sessions with each other. Minton’s was popular until 1974, when a fire led to the Cecil Hotel where the club was housed to be abandoned. The playhouse was recognised for its significant contribution to American history and it was listed on the New York State and the National Register of Historic Places.
The jazz scene in New York waned in the 1960s, 70s and 80s as Rock and Roll music started to become the more popular trend. Many of the clubs closed down, but in recent years a new interest in jazz encouraged these classic musical hotspots to open up again.
The Modern Jazz Scene in New York City
So what is the jazz scene like in New York City today? The tradition continues and the Big Apple is still a fantastic place to see amazing live jazz. You could start your evening early and check out 5 or 6 different clubs all over the city before the night is through.
Some of the world famous New York clubs, including Blue Note, Birdland Jazz Club, Iridium, the Village Vanguard, Dizzy’s and Jazz Standard present excellent performers on a regular basis. The city has featured some of the hottest jazz performers on the planet, including Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, Dave Brubeck, Michel Legrand, Roy Haynes, Pat Metheny, Hank Jones, Maynard Ferguson and Marian McPartland.
Minton’s Playhouse was closed for more than 30 years, but it was recently reopened. Businessman Richard Parsons from New York and chef Alexander Smalls have revived the famous jazz club. The restaurant features classic Southern Revival Cooking and it celebrates the recipes of the Low Country – the region in the Eastern Coast and Southern area of South Carolina and Georgia.
Minton’s – and the sister restaurant “The Cecil” – have both received rave reviews and numerous accolades. If you want to enjoy some delicious food, chill out to some classic jazz tunes and get a feeling for the New York Jazz Scene – this is the place for you to get your groove on.