In the time of Covid, those pining for the thrill of a live music performance would do well to follow the dulcet notes of the saxophone towards the capital’s darkened jazz stages. Intimate, enticing and crackling with atmosphere, From intimate, subterranean stages to red velvet-clad dining rooms, here’s our pick of the best…
Ronnie Scott’s, Frith Street
With a pedigree that’s seen the likes of Count Basie, Nina Simone and Miles Davis grace its stage, the capital’s original jazz club has earned its status as a cultural institution. It’s also one of the few jazz clubs most Londoners can name. For the uninitiated, this Frith Street joint has all the trappings that you’d hope for: dusky lighting, red velvet booths and more than a few famous faces framed on the walls. Booking is essential – particularly for bigger names – but dawdle down to Frith Street on a weeknight and you might just catch the next big thing under the lights. Upstairs, the music takes a turn, with blues, Latin and flamenco taking to the mic. If you’re looking for the essence of Ronnie Scott’s, try one of the Late Late shows, which run from 11pm until a heady 3am curtain call.
Frith Street, W1D 4HT ronniescotts.co.uk
PizzaExpress Jazz Club, Soho
Yes, that PizzaExpress, of doughballs and doughnut-shaped margarita fame. But reserve initial judgement – around since the 70s, this subterranean Soho haunt has been surprisingly central to London’s jazz scene over the past 40 odd years. One of five branches, the Soho joint sits head and shoulders above its brothers, with a roll call of past acts that included Gregory Porter, Amy Winehouse and Kenny Baker. Jazz with a side of pizza – what’s not to love?
Dean Street W1D 3RW, pizzaexpresslive.com
Dalston Jazz Bar
Spontaneous nights out are hard to come by in the capital during these trying times, but the crumbly Dalston Jazz Bar is a guaranteed saviour when you’ve nowhere to go. Follow the trumpets, order a bottle and enjoy unpretentious acts playing feet from you in what – we’d admit – feels a little like someone’s front room. Food arrives on your table sporadically (no menus), with ingredients borrowing from the safari park (think kangaroo, crocodile and camel) and you only have to pay a donation for dishes. It’s rustic, a little bit strange, but an excellent night out.
Bradbury Street N16 8JN
Vortex Jazz Club, Dalston
Dalston’s earning itself a reputation for small-scale speakeasies, but the big boy out East remains Vortex. Experimental in nature, its reputation for improv stems from a monthly club night called Mopomoso, where musicians take to the stage for some creative chaos. Don’t panic if that all sounds a bit avant garde for your tender ears: with full weekly line-ups that move from world-renowned to Dalston’s young hopefuls, skipping through a songbook of jazz, blues and folk, the clubs range far exceeds its reputation.
11 Gillett Square N16 8AZ vortexjazz.co.uk
If you’re looking for where London’s serious jazz buffs congregate, you’ll find them behind the 606Club’s discreet door in a shadowy basement below the glitz of Chelsea. Just off the Kings Road, this elegant, seductive space is committed to showcasing British talent and has launched the careers of artists like Jamie Cullum. Dubbed ‘the six’ by those in the know, you can expect music seven nights a week, with plenty of space given to upcoming youngsters testing their skills. One thing to note: while non-members are welcome, you’ll only be able to pick up a drink if you order a meal.
90 Lots Road SW10 0QD, 606club.co.uk
Whisky, cigars, Scottish dishes and a little jazz – that’s the offering at Boisdale’s central dining room (its other establishments, in Canary Wharf, Bishopsgate and Mayfair are currently still closed). Scotland and jazz might not seem a winning combination but Boisdale exceeds expectations. It’s not always jazz, but be picky with when you visit and make sure it’s a night from their regular line-up of hand-picked musicians and you’re guaranteed a good time. With Jools Holland as patron, what could go wrong?
15 Eccleston Street SW1W 9LX, boisdale.co.uk
The Jazz Café, Camden
More hedonistic than the demure table-seaters above, some jazz devotees might snub their noses at this Camden Town establishment’s daring additions to line-ups (a little electronica, anyone?) but jazz snobs are doing it a disservice. Beloved by regulars, a Covid crowdfunding initiative exceeded expectations, ensuring the raucous atmosphere and excellent mezzanine restaurant remain a constant in the London jazz scene for the foreseeable future. After a 2015 revamp increased capacity and offered a few technical upgrades, the pandemic has altered the offering a little – gone are the throbbing crowds in front of the stage. Tickets are now all seated but that’s a bonus. You can neck a Negroni or a lychee martini while listening to jazz, funk and soul sets when doors open once more on 18 September.
5 Parkway NW1 7PG, thejazzcafelondon.com
Kansa Smitty’s, Broadway Market
Grab a julep and get swinging – stepping into Kansa Smitty’s is like returning straight to the US city’s jazz heydays. Run by the house band of the same name – who own an eclectic array of era-suitable spectacles – this subterrain joint under Broadway Market only held 40 pre-pandemic so it’s unlikely to be opening doors anytime soon. But when it does, head down for a patchwork of jazz styles expertly knitted together by the seven-piece brigade. While you wait, check out their virtual jazz bar nights through the website.
Broadway Market E8 4PH kansasmittys.com