Here are my top five small venues for jazz (as a listener):
The Village Vanguard, New York The scene of seminal live albums such as my favourite Bill Evans “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” and Brad Mehldau’s “Art of the Trio” and “Live”. It is quite simply the best, most egalitarian jazz club in the world. Turn up early and you get the best seats near the piano. The seats are hard, the tables tiny, there is no space to move once seated. The servers are amazing at lip-reading your drink order, never chink money or clink glasses. The sound system is amazing despite ( maybe because of?) the pizza slice shape of the club. The walls are lined with photos of greats of the past. The piano is impeccable. Look round the audience, it is often as starry as the artists. But we all come to listen, no business deals are struck, no cell phone dares ring. You won’t want to leave.
Smoke, New York. Small, plush with nice food, to me if feels a bit like a high class bordello, all velvet plush (I was there in 2006) and servers who are very smartly turned out. You are free to glare at people who dare to talk during the sets. The owners pride themselves on the sound system. I was seated right next to the drums but not for one moment did I feel overwhelmed by them. I was more in danger of losing my dinner to the drummer, Joe Farnsworth, how told me ” We drummers have quick hands!” You take the A train to get here which is a nice touch.
The Vortex, London. Extremely civilised – you queue up outside in the rain, then discover that you have been allocated a seat at a table where your name is on a card – they knew you were coming so you feel welcome the moment you walk up the stairs. You get two sets and plenty of time to enthuse with the fellow guests on your table. The bar staff are quick and friendly – probably volunteers – the place feels like it is run with love.
St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry Gorgeous medieval building with beautiful stained glass and rare tapestries, the perfect setting to hear Dhafer Youssef’s exquisite voice which just soars up to the ceiling of angels. Late-lamented Coventry jazz festival venue for several years.
A club in Krakow, now not used as a jazz club. No not the Harris piano bar (too crowded), not U Muniak (perfectly fine though that is). No, this one was a small basement club on the main square, now sadly no longer a jazz club. We saw a Polish pianist (not Leszek Możdżer) and the most amazing vibes player. What makes me remember this club with such affection is that we came here after a day in Auschwitz, and the Polish faces around me reminded me of the faces I’d seen on the walls of that terrible nightmare place. But here they were so full of life and hope, it made you think, just for a moment, about how amazing it is to be here at all and to be enjoying jazz.