Art Works Blog

Where to Hear Jazz History

Preservation by flickr user Gruenemann

If you were to criss-cross the country visiting the nation's legendary jazz clubs, one of your first stops would be the Village Vanguard, owned by NEA Jazz Master Lorraine Gordon. Founded by Gordon's husband Max, the Vanguard first opened its doors in 1935, making it New York City's oldest continually operating jazz venue. But where next? Inspired by Gordon's legacy, we put together five other historic spots that continue to shape the American jazz scene.

Bohemian Caverns (Washington, DC): Once known as “Black Broadway,” DC’s U Street was the musical heart of the neighborhood’s thriving African-American community. The street was lined with clubs, movie houses, and theaters, some of which---including Bohemian Caverns---still stand today. Opened in 1926 as Club Caverns, the basement nightclub hosted Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and later, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Charles Mingus. Like many U Street businesses, Bohemian Caverns fell victim to the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. King, and was forced to shut its doors. As the neighborhood began to stage a comeback in the 1990s and 2000s, the club was purchased and its trademark craggy interior was restored. Today, Bohemian Caverns is once again one of the city’s finest jazz clubs.

Preservation Hall (New Orleans, Louisiana): New Orleans has always been the undisputed birthplace of jazz. But even so, the city’s particular style of jazz began to lose ground as the music evolved, giving way to movements like bebop and free jazz. In order to ensure that traditional New Orleans jazz would live on, Preservation Hall was established in 1961. Housed in a building that dates back to the 1750s, the venue is dedicated to preserving, presenting, and promoting New Orleans jazz. Preservation Hall offers educational programs for young musicians, as well as live performances every night of the week.

Phoenix Jazz Club (Kansas City, Missouri): When the country went dry under Prohibition, Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast kept the booze flowing, propelling his town into a major nightlife destination. This was the era when Kansas City jazz came into its own, integrating the blues into popular big band swing. Built in the 1880s, the Phoenix Jazz Club was there through it all. Originally a hotel (that is said to have functioned more as a bordello), the Phoenix eventually evolved into a jazz joint. The club is still known for playing Kansas City-style jazz, and continues to hold weekly jam sessions. Fun fact: jams were said to have originated in Kansas City.

Green Mill Cocktail Lounge (Chicago, Illinois): Built in 1907 as Pop Morse’s Roadhouse, this legendary spot in Uptown has been associated with entertainment from the start. Initially a popular hangout with those in show business, the venue became Green Mill Gardens in 1910, featuring a rooftop green windmill in a nod to Paris’s Moulin Rouge. Dancing and live entertainment were added, and eventually, the club became known for its jazz. Of course, jazz fans weren’t the only ones who frequented the Green Mill---so did the mob. During the 1920s and ‘30s, the club fell under the domain of Al Capone, and at one point, his associate “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn owned 25 percent of the club. After the mob era, the Green Mill was restored as a reputable establishment, though it fell on hard times as the Uptown neighborhood declined in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Today, both Uptown and the Green Mill shine brightly again, and the club continues to offer jazz every night of the week.

Mose Allison recorded his album Mose Alive! at the Lighthouse; it was released by Atlantic in 1966. Although the club faded from the jazz scene in the 1980s, these days it once again features jazz several nights a week.

The NEA Jazz Masters Concert and Ceremony will be webcast live on January 14, 2012 at 7:30 p.m. ET. Please click here for more information on the event and this year's class of honorees.

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