Find Your Funk
Text by Nate Chinen
“So where should I go to hear some music?” It’s a question I’ve heard countless times since planting roots in the Big Apple almost fifteen years ago, and it’s one that I tend to answer vaguely, hedging my advice, because there’s no magic bullet for the elusive bull’s-eye of a transcendent night out. To pretend that there is would be to shortchange the rich diversity of a musical ecosystem about as complex as the metropolis itself.
Yes, New York City is an imposing monolith, but it’s also a patchwork of walkable neighborhoods, each with its own flavor and character. This is especially true of its music scene, which I cover as a critic, primarily for The New York Times. The secret truth is that I often do stitch together club-hopping itineraries for myself and for visiting guests. The particulars change depending on mood and preference, but a handful of staples usually end up in the running. We’re not talking about the usual tourist destinations; I love seeing a show at Radio City Music Hall—just like I love a sunset mai tai at the Moana Surfrider during my too-rare visits home. But that’s not where the real action lies, which is what we’ll be seeking over the course of two busy but feasible (and affordable!) NYC nights.
Night one begins with an early set at Jazz Standard, the city’s most congenial jazz club, celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. A basement room with crisp sound and a welcoming air, it presents an impeccable balance of established and upand- coming jazz talent, from saxophonist Lou Donaldson to trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. And it’s run by the peerless New York restaurateur Danny Meyer, who wrote the book on hospitality. (I mean that literally —his Setting the Table: The Power of Hospitality in Business was a New York Times bestseller in 2006.) We’ll be dining on authentic pit barbecue: hardy fuel for a long evening and a good dose of comfort for any Islander far from home (something about smoky, slow-cooked pork …).
After the set, there’s enough time for a salutary stroll down Park Avenue toward our next appointment at Joe’s Pub, the cabaret attached to the venerable Public Theater on Astor Place. Chic but never stuffy, and with better sightlines since a renovation last year, this club takes eclecticism as far as it’ll go. I’ve caught rappers, world-music icons and Broadway stars here; a few years ago I reviewed a gig by a nervous young Brit named Adele. So what’s on the agenda tonight? It’s up for grabs in the best way.
You could say much the same about The Living Room, a scruffier haunt on the Lower East Side a short cab ride away. This is the singer-songwriter hub made famous by Norah Jones, who still drops by, often to sit in with the likes of guitar slingers Jim Campilongo and Tony Scherr, who play one after the other on Mondays. The quality control is loose, so there’s always risk of a dud—but there’s usually no cover, the drinks are cheap and we’re yielding to our spirit of exploration here. The music ends late, though there’s still time for another drink or two along Ludlow Street before returning to base.
Our second night commences at the Village Vanguard, the oldest jazz club in the city and still the most prestigious. There’s no better room for acoustic jazz in the world, and its history feels palpable as soon as you clomp down its narrow entry stairwell. John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Bill Evans all made albums here; their modern counterparts, like Joe Lovano and Jason Moran, still do. And while not everyone appreciates the club’s grit, it’s all part of the vibe. For about a decade I lived just a few blocks away; that proximity, I often said, was one of the chief amenities of my apartment.
Another amenity was quick access to the L train, which zips across the East River into Williamsburg, Brooklyn. That’s the epicenter of postmillennial indie culture, and it’s where we’re headed next. The Music Hall of Williamsburg can be found on the remote end of a street full of bars, shops and restaurants. Its booking favors stylish indie rock: bands like The Rapture and Of Montreal, though there are always exceptions. (I saw the bearish country singer Jamey Johnson there once. “Betcha never thought you’d see my ass in Brooklyn,” he drawled onstage, sipping bourbon from a plastic cup.) And the layout of the place, with a balcony lounge and several different bars, facilitates fluid movement.
Speaking of which, we need only head a few blocks down Wythe Avenue—a barren strip of warehouses gradually turning into Condoville—to get to Zebulon, which has the permissive atmosphere and pressed-tin ceiling of a Parisian dive. It’s well after midnight by now, but the music is still going, as is the friendly hum of conversation. Who’s playing? A kora virtuoso from Mali, or an instrumental death-metal duo, or a fiery free-jazz combo. The not-knowing is part of the adventure, which after only two nights you’ve come to embrace. How long does it really take to become a New Yorker, anyway?
116 East 27th Street, (212) 576-2232
425 Lafayette Street, (212) 539-8778
The Living Room
154 Ludlow Street, (212) 533-7237
178 7th Avenue South, (212) 255-4037
Music Hall of Williamsburg
66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn,
258 Wythe Avenue, Brooklyn,