Embrace NYC history by stepping through the same Greenwich Village and Midtown streets as the jazz masters. Cultivate a local sense of jazz geography in the Big Apple by understanding the difference between uptown and downtown, or that Gil Evans famous basement apartment where he “left the door open” for the greatest names in jazz was just around the corner from 52nd Street.
This three hour walk, in the company a jazz historian, includes earphones that enable you to hear key performances and pieces at select moments even as you take in the topography of the city’s jazz neighborhoods. Starting in the East Village at Charlie Parker’s apartment during the last four years of his life, there are many notable locations in this neighborhood from NuBlu (showcasing current rising stars like Bill McHenry, Jacob Sacks, and Tony Malaby) to Slugs, where the Charles Mingus Quintet performed, and trumpeter Lee Morgan was shot dead between sets by his girlfriend. St. Mark’s place, home of the Electric Circus and the Five Spot, where Monk and Coltrane made history and Ornette Coleman’s Quartet broke through. Just down the street Sam Rivers and his wife Bea established Studio Rivbea in NoHo, a prime example of the jazz loft scene.
Then turning west, Bleeker Street is still alive with jazz, from Sub-culture downstairs on Lafayette St, then across Broadway to Terra Blues, Zinc Bar, le Poisson Rouge (formerly the Village Gate where Miles Davis, Herbie Mann, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Latin Meets Jazz and many others flourished), Kenny’s Castaways, Sullivan Hall (WinterJazz Fest spills out of these venues one weekend each January), Visiones (where Maria Schneider polished her orchestra), and the Blue Note. Then on to Sheridan Square’s 55 Bar where fusion and blues guitarists mix it up with emerging vocalists, late lamented Sweet Basil where David Murray and Gil Evans reigned, the young jazzer’s lounge Fat Cat, the late night hangout Small’s, ending at the Village Vanguard, arguably the finest jazz club in the world, and known from iconic live albums by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and the Bill Evans Trio.
A quick subway ride north on the A Train from the West Village to Midtown will partially dramatize the story of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train” that became the theme of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Based on Ellington’s subway directions to his residence, the tune was written by Strayhorn as a sort of audition piece for a preliminary meeting with Duke:
You must take the “A” train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the “A” train
You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem
Hurry, get on board, it’s coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming
All aboard, get on that “A” train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem
Once in Midtown, walk “The Street”, a certain segment of West 52nd Street that featured a cluster of celebrated jazz clubs like The Famous Door, Club Carousel, The Downbeat, Onyx, Ryan’s, The Three Deuces, Kelly’s Stable, and the orginal Birdland. The area has become highly developed since the heyday of “The Street”, but the 21 Club as an original structure is still there. Around the corner is that Gil Evan’s basement apartment address, and finally, just up Fifth Avenue is the Stanhope Hotel where Charlie Parker died in the residence of the “Jazz Baroness”, Pannonica de Koenigswarter.