Intense Innovation: Jazz Clubs and the Evolution of Jazz

In much of the public mind, the jazz club has a somewhat sleazy reputation. The smoky atmosphere after working hours, the bohemian atmosphere, the presence of night owls, gangsters – this stereotype is alive and well in popular culture. While it is true to say that jazz clubs were nightclubs – often of a very rudimentary type – that had music, the film noir imagery conjured up by the phrase “jazz club” obscures the reality of the extraordinary influence of the jazz club on the evolution of jazz, indeed of the music of the 20th century.

Given their origin, it is hardly surprising that jazz clubs have a reputation in public opinion as haunts of vice. The ban began in the WE in 1920 and lasted until 1933. Thousands of saloons were forced to close and gangsters saw an opportunity to manufacture, transport and sell alcohol, and create venues where it could be drunk. The speakeasy was born.

Prohibition did nothing to curb America’s thirst for alcohol, and huge profits were made by those who supplied it – especially if they also controlled the point of sale to customers. In mob-controlled Chicago of the 1920s, dozens of illicit drinking clubs sprang up and competition for patrons was fierce. By providing entertainment, you could attract more customers to your establishment, and jazz, with its dance origins, was the perfect music for the party atmosphere that clubs wanted to foster. To give themselves a competitive edge, clubs wanted to hire the best players, and hugely important figures such as King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were given a nightly platform to play and develop their music.

Although Prohibition ended in 1933, the jazz club format remained and became a mainstay of American musical life, popping up in every major city and even in cities around the world.

There is no doubt that working conditions were atrocious, especially for black musicians. Long hours in smoky environments, surrounded by drunkenness, in cramped playing conditions, treated like servants, often swindled out of their money by club owners or forced into punitive long-term contracts – but these were the only places where most jazz musicians could find work. However, as harsh as these conditions were, they provided a crucial element for the development of jazz: an environment in which musicians could play every night for many hours and develop their artistry, craftsmanship and physical endurance.

Twenty-two sets per week
It is difficult to assess the length of playing hours in a typical jazz club at this time. The great Benny Golson told me that as teenagers he and John Coltrane stood outside the open window of a jazz club in Philadelphia listening to Charlie Parker, who played five sets of forty-five minutes, 10 p.m. at 2 a.m. This was not uncommon and, at the very least, a band would play three sets per night.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the typical band commitment to a club was at least six nights a week, three sets a night, and two matinees on Saturdays and Sundays from 3 to 6 p.m. This meant that in a typical week, a jazz band played twenty-two sets of music, each set lasting at least fifty minutes. Until the late 1960s, it was in this environment that the most important innovations and developments in jazz took place and were exhibited.

The sheer length of time performers had to perform each night required great physical endurance and ensured the development of powerful instrumental and vocal techniques. The informality of the environment and long playtime encouraged experimentation, and those who came specifically to listen to the music were rewarded by seeing the music evolve right in front of them – in the 1950s you could watch the Miles Davis band with John Coltrane and Bill Evans plays literally inches from you and for several hours, for a relatively modest expense.

Jazz personalities, and the music and styles they created and invented, were associated with specific clubs: Duke Ellington with the Cotton Club in New York in the late 1920s, Count Basie at the Reno Club in Kansas City in the 1930s, Charlie Parker with the clubs on 52n/a Street in New York in the 1940s, Thelonious Monk at Five Spot and Miles Davis at Café Bohemia in the 1950s, and Bill Evans and John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard in the 1960s. And many key live recordings from the 1950s were made in the clubs – Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans and John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot and Miles Davis at Plugged Nickel.

New York state of mind
If I was offered a trip in a time machine, the period I would choose would be New York in the mid-1960s, because there in the clubs you could see musicians from all jazz eras happen every night. It would have been entirely possible in New York at the time to see Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor all performing at different clubs. You will be able to witness the full range of music from its origins to the avant-garde.

From the late 1960s, the number of jazz clubs declined as rock music dominated popular consciousness and jazz was no longer seen as economical for club owners. With the loss of this environment came the loss of the platform for extended play and the ability to experiment over a long period of time. Surviving jazz clubs moved to a two-set-per-night format and prices rose. A night at the Village Vanguard, Birdland or Ronnie Scott’s Club doesn’t come cheap these days.

As I write this, I look forward to performing in “New York Frame of Mind”, a three-night, three-set-per-night series with the legendary Dave Liebman – who himself began his career playing in New York jazz clubs in the 1960s. – and with my longtime colleagues my brother Conor and guitarist Mike Nielsen. At Bello Bar in leafy Portobello, we will try to emulate the atmosphere and philosophy of the New York jazz club of the 1960s, with its long playing time and the opportunity for the public to experience the atmosphere intimate environment in which jazz originally developed.

Liebman himself says:

The jazz club of that time was to jazz what the concert hall was to classical music. The ability to play multiple sets of music on successive nights has an effect on the music that cannot be duplicated in any other way. For musicians, they have a chance to stretch, experiment and develop the music over a long period of time. For the public, they discover the intimacy of the jazz club as well as the possibility of seeing the music develop in front of them.

Will we have the stamina over the three nights that our jazz ancestors had? I hope so! Are we going to create something unique for ourselves during this time that we can share with the public? Definitively!

The New York State of Mind concerts, featuring Dave Liebman, Ronan Guilfoyle, Mike Nielsen and Conor Guilfoyle, will take place on May 26, 27 and 28, from 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., at Bello Bar in Portobello, Dublin 8. Buy your tickets here.

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