A Club Supreme There's more to a sweet night of jazz than music. Daniel Okrent explains how to tell if the all-important vibe is right.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – The worst thing that ever happened to me while listening to jazz couldn't have happened in a great jazz club. I had gone with my wife and extremely hip kids to hear Illinois Jacquet in the Chestnut Room at New York's Tavern on the Green. If you know Tavern on the Green, you may be surprised to find it mentioned in the same paragraph as the words "Illinois Jacquet," but that's sort of the point.
At the table behind me, a woman in her 60s was holding forth--"holding forth" being a euphemism for talking endlessly, loudly, and entirely unmindfully of the superb music emanating from the bandstand. By mid-set I had sent so many gentle shushes, wounded sighs, and angry glares her way that anyone watching must have thought I was impersonating Marcel Marceau. Finally, when Jacquet began to play an exquisite, unaccompanied "Body and Soul," I spun and snarled, "Will you please be quiet!"
It was about two numbers later that I felt a hand gripping my shoulder, and then the hot breath of someone whispering in my ear, in a slow, measured tone, "You upset my wife, and I don't like it when my wife gets upset. You do anything else to upset my wife, and"--here his voice got both louder and slower--"I will rip. Your. Eyeballs. Out."
There's really only one prerequisite to making a jazz club great: the people come to hear the music, not to talk, eat, see and be seen, or threaten to humiliate fathers in front of their children. Everything else flows from this. Sound system, food, drinks, sightlines, audience--if people come to hear the music, the rest will turn out just fine. To wit:
1. Sound system. This should be easy, but it's amazing how many clubs blow it. The kind-of-old Birdland on upper Broadway in New York (as opposed to the new Birdland on West 43rd Street, or the very old, original Birdland on West 52nd) was a long room, tables in front and bar in the back. To get the sound into the bar, the speakers were placed halfway back so that listeners at the tables experienced the strange sensation of hearing the sound from the musicians right in front of them and simultaneously from the speakers right behind them. People who liked to hang out in the bar and talk got a simulacrum of live music, and people who liked to sit at the tables and listen...stopped coming. Bye-bye, Birdland. A good sound system, like the one at the holy Village Vanguard, isn't noticed: The music should seem to come directly from the performers.
2. Food. I love a club with good food. Yoshi's, in Oakland, has the best talent, the best acoustics, the best atmosphere in the Bay Area. It also has the best sushi you'll ever find in a jazz club, which will sometimes bring people who care more about the sushi than the music. It's not that the crowd at Yoshi's is loud. I just worry that it could get loud if it keeps serving its terrific Una-Q eel and cucumber roll. A good club should have decent food; anything better might attract the wrong kind of people.
3. Drinks. Gotta have drinks. Gotta have a bar, too, for sitting or standing in the bar is sometimes the only affordable way to enjoy an evening listening to top-priced talent. But keep the bar distant from the musicians. Bars make unwanted noise. Music doesn't like unwanted noise. And while we're on odious stuff in the atmosphere, music doesn't like smoke either, despite the nicotine-soaked trail of jazz history. Who could have imagined that a public-health movement would improve the quality of life in jazz clubs?
4. Sightlines. Long rooms are inferior to wide rooms; the latter allow better viewing angles, more tables close to the music, and a heightened sense of intimacy. If only the new Birdland booked talent as appealing as the room itself, it would be wonderful. The Regattabar in Cambridge, Mass., has the shape right--it just needs to work on the sound system.
5. Talent. Between you and me, you can have your hipster palaces. Sure, the legendary Vanguard's great, but does your idea of a good evening really begin with 45 minutes of standing in line on a steep, dark staircase before you're led to a cramped table in an overcrowded basement? Well, if it's the only way I'm going to get to hear Joe Lovano or Kenny Drew Jr. (the spectacular pianist who's bringing his trio to the Vanguard the last week in June), it works for me. And I sort of have the feeling that there won't be an eyeball-plucker in the place.