From Cambridge to the South End, everything from touring acts to fringe rooms
If you haven’t been scared off by unfunny hipster parodies of the genre in the New Yorker and want to hear some live jazz, I salute you. I’m here for you. As a musician, jazz writer, and longtime denizen of many local joints, I will try to make the process of choosing a place to go as undaunting as possible.
Boston-area venues run the gamut from classy to funky, and offer a range of styles. When the big-ticket acts come to town, unless they’re playing an auditorium or theater, they usually perform in either the Regattabar or Scullers.
We’ll start with the Regattabar, located in the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square. It’s easy to get to by T, but tough to park unless you do the hotel garage. Nowhere is the sound worse than good, but the best audio to be had is relatively close to the stage. There are some obstructed views and a second ring of tables on the other side of the path that is crisscrossed by wait staff. Check the schedule and know in advance whom you want to see so you can reserve a good table.
National acts coming through, like Lee Konitz, Stanley Jordan, and Pat Martino, play mainstream jazz and are pretty bullet-proof. The Regattabar also makes space for well-known local acts, like the Either Orchestra and the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. Lately, it’s been reaching out to get folks with more of a taste for world, soul, or R&B, booking acts like the François Moutin & Kavita Shah Duo and Atlas Soul. It serves light edibles. $25 to 35 is the typical ticket price, and it does student discounts.
Scullers is also in a hotel, the Doubletree Suites. You can walk, but you’d suffer through some bad highway feng shui, so you’ll probably have to drive or bike. The club was upstairs in the hotel and moved into a space off the lobby. I prefer this space to the old one. It’s long and rectangular, with a cluster of tables near the stage, a walkway behind, then more seats farther away. As with Regatta, book early if you can, to be closer to the stage. The sound is good and well under control.
Like the Regattabar, Scullers brings in “bigger” acts, such as various members of the Marsalis family, Monty Alexander, and Bill Charlap. This is high-end music of the mainstream variety. Shows normally run Thursday-Saturday. It also books slightly edgier and smooth jazz and doesn’t book local acts very often.
Scullers has several tiers of seating, usually ranging from $35 to $50, and encourages people to go for a dinner package that runs about $75 to $85. Buying that will get you a better seat. It has a fairly extensive menu and, in my experience, does a good job on the victuals.
Cambridge folks are fortunate to have three places in Inman Square: Ryles, the Lilypad and Outpost 186. Parking is not that bad and Inman Square is on several bus lines.
The Outpost, at 186 Hampshire St., is a favorite. I’ve played there a few times. You walk down a short pathway from the sidewalk to get there, and if someone forgets to put the sandwich board up on Hampshire Street, you’d never know it was there. The space is intimate, with a max seating of about 35 people. Art exhibitions rotate on the walls. There’s a good piano, the acoustics are good, and you’re pretty close to the musicians no matter where you sit. Entry is by donation. $10 is the usual asking price.
The music is mostly jazz, with occasional folk, blues, or world. The jazz is sometimes straight-ahead and often experimental—whatever the hell that means. To me, “free blowing” is experimental, but so is highly arranged but unusual music that combines music and words in an unusual way or using odd instrumentation. I recently saw a fabulous jazz harpist there—Charles Overton. The skill level ranges from the competent to the I can’t believe musicians as good as this are only playing for 10 people.
There are also poetry readings, life drawing classes, and other oddments. Audiences are often mixed, less racially than in age. Negotiations with the neighbors means that shows have to be over pretty early and generally go 8 to 10 pm.
Ryles is multipurpose. It uses the second floor as a dance hall, with Latin, Brazilian, swing music, and dance instruction. The first floor, where the jazz happens, is a large, comfortable room with a long bar. The menu is extensive, leaning toward barbecue and bar food. I’ve enjoyed the food here.
The stage is large, and nothing blocks the sight lines. There’s a grand piano and decent stage lighting. I’ve found the acoustics to be solid, although if you’re way in back, visuals and sound aren’t as good. A fair number of local acts book the room for exposure. There’s some fusion, jazz-rock, a Steely Dan cover group, a local vocalist showcase. Occasionally, a bigger act will come in, like percussionist Ronnie Burrage or a world music act that isn’t able to fill a concert hall. There’s a jazz brunch Sunday mornings with a nice trio.
If you’re looking for a place to dance, mark this place down. Entry fee is usually in the $10 to $20 range. It’s very eclectic musically, so if you know you’re going out, do a little research to find out who’s playing and you may happen into something that’s a happy surprise. That also goes for the Outpost and Lilypad.
In terms of ambience, the Lilypad is kind of in between the Outpost and Ryles. It’s larger and slightly more well-appointed than the Outpost, but smaller and funkier than Ryles. Programming is more similar to the Outpost, and you will see some of the same players gigging in one or the other place. Like the Outpost, the Lilypad has other sidelines, offering art lessons, music for kids, and yoga. I’d say about half the time, it schedules two shows with different groups and separate entrance fees. Rock bands sometimes book the place for album release parties, and there are cross-genre performances, as well as comedy and dance.
In terms of jazz, it should be noted that this has been the longtime home of the Fringe on Monday nights—a free improvisational trio with monster musicians who have developed an uncanny telepathy (more on them another time). Many of the jazz players who gig here have strong reputations, often teaching at Berklee or NEC. There’s a seating capacity of 60 and sight lines are no problem. There is a grand piano and the acoustics are fine. Cover charge goes from $5 to about $20.
The Third Life Studio is in Union Square in Somerville. There’s some parking and good bus service. Its full name is Third Life for the Healing and Performing Arts, and apart from music there are classes in Tai Chi, body work, etc. There’s kind of a ’60s vibe about the place. Admission is usually $10 to $15.
It’s a large, no-frills space, with high ceilings and lots of wall space for art. There’s an excellent grand piano. I’ve played there several times and found the acoustics to be very good. It seems like there are usually about 30 chairs put out, but it could accommodate bigger crowds. Food is not served, but there are lots of restaurants in Union Square.
Mandorla Jazz and other jazz series often book shows in Third Life, which means there’s a steady influx of quality jazz. In my experience, the music is always adventurous, ranging from free blowing to tight ensembles with excellent soloists. Much of the talent is from Boston. Series producers do bring in people from out of town: sometimes name players in the avant-garde, but also well-known jazz players who serve as sidemen for more well-known players. Admission is usually $10 to $20.
Wally’s is one of a kind in Boston, a throwback to the days in the 1940s-50s when there were a dozen jazz clubs in the South End. Over the course of time it has moved slightly beyond the boundaries of jazz and now includes blues, Latin, and funk, but every day there is a jazz jam session from 6 to 9 pm, and Friday and Saturday nights are jazz.
This is the place where young musicians from Berklee and New England Conservatory go to test their mettle among their peers and to impress a discerning audience. Over the past five decades, at least, young players who passed through Wally’s have gone on to wide recognition. Esperanza Spalding, Jeremy Pelt, and Jason Palmer are recent examples.
Wally’s is in a brownstone on Mass Ave—easy to get to by T. Parking is not easy. There’s no cover charge, and it’s open until 2 am. It’s a small place—maybe a dozen tables and a long bar you can sit at. It’s usually crowded, but also clears out around midnight, so get there either early or late to avoid crowds. It’s the rare Boston venue that actually draws a racially mixed audience. Go with open ears. Someone whose name you don’t recognize might very well show up soon as a headliner.
Thelonious Monkfish, in Central Square, Cambridge, is a fairly recent addition to the scene. Unlike most of the other joints mentioned here, Monkfish presents only jazz. It is a large-ish room, and since food is an important part of the operation, tables are pretty tightly packed in to accommodate more diners. There are a few banquettes on the side and a few seats at the bar in the back. It’s easily accessible by T, with some parking available nearby, and there’s no cover charge.
It books excellent musicians. Trios and quartets are the norm, often with a vocalist. In fact, it’s kind of a specialty room for vocalists. There’s nothing “outside” happening, just solid mainstream playing. Be aware that the kind of listening experience you have depends on when you go. As mentioned, it emphasizes the cuisine, and during dinner hours, the clamor is pretty intense. After dinner, the din settles down. On Friday nights, there’s a jam session where it’s all about the music. There’s a good house rhythm section, and excellent players often show up.
Les Zygomates is in Boston’s small Leather District; not much leather there now, but a small pocket of cool near Chinatown. It’s accessible by T, there’s some parking close by and also valet parking. It presents as a fairly chic, upscale bistro with soft lighting and a romantic ambience. The accent is on the food, and it offers a large menu in French bistro style, with many wine options. Prices are pretty high.
There is music every day. During the week, solo blues, jazz guitarists, or pianists perform, and jazz trios or quartets come in on Friday and Saturday. These are all solid area players. When it’s a night with solo performers, it’s the kind of place where you might be able to strike up enough rapport to request a tune. The music is in a separate room, so make sure the staff knows you are interested in hearing the music, but know that when larger ensembles are playing, the sound in the room can be loud, so if you want a combination of music and conversation, take that into consideration in deciding where you want to sit.
The Beehive is a large room in the South End, near the Boston Center for the Arts, accessible by bus and a bit of a walk from the T. Parking is tough, though there is a valet. There’s no cover charge, and this is another dinner and music combo place. The food is calibrated to be above bar-food level, but not fancy-dancy, so prices are moderate to high. The room is built with tiers of seating and some obstructions, so sightlines to the stage vary depending on where you sit. My opinion as far as acoustics: sit not too close and not too far; that gets you the best sound—depending on the size of the ensemble.
The Beehive has a fairly eclectic musical approach—blues, reggae, soul, and jazz. Showtimes vary a lot, but generally run until 2 am on the weekends, when the music is likely to be jazz-funk or reggae. The more straight-ahead jazz is likelier to happen on a Thursday and during brunch hours on Saturday and Sunday. The musicianship is always on a high level. It can get very busy during brunch and on weekend nights, so reservations are a good idea.
Other places occasionally featuring jazz: Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen, South End; The Bebop, Back Bay; Primavera Ristorante, Millis; Middle East Corner Bar, Central Square, Cambridge; Amazing Things Arts Center, Framingham; Trail’s End Cafe, Concord; The Ellis Room, Brookline; The Lizard Lounge, Cambridge; Ambrosia (formerly Demetri’s), Foxboro; Russ Gershon’s Accurate Records Loft, Somerville; Chelmsford Center For the Arts, Chelmsford; Colleges: Paine Hall, Harvard, Jordan Hall, NEC, various small halls at Berklee and Berklee Performance Center, Boston Conservatory at Berklee.