Modern jazz’s improvisational style borrows from other genres – blues, ragtime, rock and even hip-hop – while defying definition as a rule. From the Deep South to the Pacific Northwest, here are seven destinations to discover jazz music in the USA.
1. New Orleans, Louisiana: The Birthplace of Jazz
Always a hotbed of music and dance, New Orleans’ Creole, African, French and Spanish cultures contributed to the birth of jazz. Beginning with New Orleans native Buddy Bolden’s early jazz music of the 1890s to contemporary performers such as Harry Connick Jr. and Wynton Marsalis, the Crescent City is a muse for musical inspiration. Visit the New Orleans Jazz Museum for a comprehensive collection of musical artifacts. Stroll along vibrant Frenchmen Street, listening for tunes floating out of venues such as The Spotted Cat Music Club and Three Muses. Preservation Hall and Little Gem Saloon are two more must-visit places for jazz history and top-notch live acts. Visit JustFly customer service in late April and early May to attend the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival.
Street musicians performing in New Orleans (image)
2. Boston, Massachusetts: Flourishing in the Forties and Beyond
Jazz thrived in Boston during the post-World War II years of the 1940s and ’50s. One notable venue remains from this era: Wally’s Café Jazz Club. Established in 1947, Wally’s is an institution for live acts in an intimate atmosphere. In the evening, catch Wally’s long-running open jam session. Both The Beehive and Scullers Jazz Club have been lauded by DownBeat Magazine as among the top U.S. jazz clubs, so be sure to add them to your agenda for tasty food and creative tunes. Hear live music outdoors by timing a visit to coincide with two acclaimed events – the Boston Jazz Fest in August at the Seaport and the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival in September in the historic South End. See touring acts at the Berklee College of Music’s Berklee Performance Center or enjoy the coffeehouse vibe of the student-run Red Room at Café 939.
Outside the Berklee College of Music in Boston (image)
3. Kansas City, Missouri: Jazz Takes Root
Kansas City’s nearly non-existent enforcement of liquor laws during Prohibition allowed nightclubs to flourish. Honing their craft in this era were Ben Parker, Big Joe Turner, Charlie Parker, Count Basie Orchestra and Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra. Stroll the Jazz Walk of Fame in the 18th and Vine historic jazz district. Visit the American Jazz Museum and don’t miss a show in the Blue Room Jazz Club. Snap a photo of Parker’s statue nearby. Take your pick of local clubs to see acts nightly. Inside the Green Lady Lounge, with oil paintings hanging on walls painted red, listen to local musicians play authentic Kansas City-style jazz. The Majestic Restaurant Jazz Club, formerly a historic saloon, serves up classic jazz and steaks. The Mutual Musicians Foundation International continues a tradition started in 1930 by hosting legendary jam sessions after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
The 18th and Vine historic jazz district in Kansas City (image)
4. Chicago, Illinois: The Musical Migration
It’s not surprising that jazz finds a cozy home in one of the most culturally rich cities in the USA. During the early 20th century, the Great Migration brought African-American blues and jazz musicians up the Mississippi River to northern cities. Step back in time at the Green Mill Jazz Club, a former speakeasy in Chicago’s Uptown dating to 1907 that fills its calendar with an array of artists, from solo guitarists to orchestras. Another historic club to visit is the Jazz Showcase, presenting top local and international artists since 1947 every night and Sunday afternoons. Eat dinner, then linger at the bar to listen to two bands each night at Andy’s Jazz Club Restaurant, two blocks north of the Chicago River and convenient to Grant Park and the Magnificent Mile shopping district. Chicago is also home to two festivals, the Chicago Jazz Festival over the Labor Day holiday in early September and Hyde Park Jazz Festival in late September.
Taking in an outdoor concert at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park (image)
5. New York, New York: A Jazz Mecca
Jazz is the soundtrack of New York City, beginning in the 1920s and ’30s with the voices of Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway singing at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club. Today, jazz brunches, two jazz museums – the National Jazz Museum and Louis Armstrong House Museum – and festivals such as the Jazz Age Lawn Party in August and Winter Jazzfest in January attest to New York City’s status as a jazz mecca. It’s easy to fill a travel itinerary with an iconic venue for each night in the city. Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, which is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center and directed by Wynton Marsalis, features Southern-inspired food; see emerging artists perform during the famed Late Night Session. Another great spot to visit is the Birdland Jazz Club NYC, where the legend Charlie “Bird” Parker was the first headliner in 1949; eat Cajun fare while listening to jazz in one of the city’s premier venues. The Blue Note, a Greenwich Village cultural staple, brings in fans from all over the world to hear local musicians, who are sometimes joined onstage by some of the jazz world’s biggest stars. The Iridium, where guitarist Les Paul played weekly for 14 years, continues to attract superstar singers and musicians to its stage. Think you missed out on something? Smalls Jazz Club offers free live streams of every show.
The legendary Cotton Club, a landmark in Harlem in New York City
6. Chattanooga, Tennessee: Jazz for the Masses
The city known for its traditional Southern food and outdoor recreation is also the birthplace of Bessie Smith, Jimmy Blanton, Lovie Austin and Grammy Award-winner Yusef Lateef. Thanks in part to Jazzanooga, a nonprofit organization that preserves local music history and organizes the weekly Levitt AMP Chattanooga Music Series from August through October, Chattanooga remains essential to jazz in America. Jazzanooga’s year-round cultural programming to celebrate jazz and the arts includes a festival, conferences and discussions. Barking Legs Theater offers the free Jazz in the Lounge on Wednesday nights as well as a monthly jam session. On Thursdays, St. John’s Meeting Place hosts live jazz in the evening. Music fans can check out the collection of rare guitars at the Songbirds Guitar Museum or see memorabilia at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.
Overlooking the Tennessee River and the Chattanooga skyline (image)
7. Seattle, Washington: A History of Music
Seattle was another destination with a lenient attitude toward alcohol and speakeasies during the Prohibition Era, and that allowed the jazz scene to flourish. Performers such as Quincy Jones, Ray Charles and Ernestine Anderson gained fame here. In addition to popular clubs such as Tula’s Restaurant and Jazz Club, Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley, The Triple Door and Seamonster Lounge, Seattle is festival country. Earshot Jazz Festival in October and November is the biggest jazz festival in the city, but you can also plan a trip around the Bellvue and Ballard festivals, both in May, or Jazz in the Valley in July.
Trombone Shorty Orleans Avenue performing on stage during Bumbershoot, a music festival in Seattle (image)