My favourite jazz bars in London, from spiritual jazz in a Medieval church crypt, to swing jazz in Streatham, plus insider tips, including what night to go, where to sit and what food and drink to order while you’re enjoying the music.
It’s located inside the Dalston Cultural Club, a building that resembles a huge cube of ice melded offensively to an old Brutalist block. It’s cramped. Your ticket price will get you a wobbly chair at one of the bistro tables if you’re lucky. Or a place on the windowsill if you’re not. But this club,which a former taxi driver started in the Eighties, has been committed to emerging, innovative British jazz since the start: Derek Bailey and Last Amendment have performed here. The frenetic, expressionist jazz-themed watercolours on the walls are noteworthy. The food in the downstairs restaurant is not.
Insider’s tip: Opt for one of the Vocals@Vortex events: genuinely outstanding new jazz blood has been discovered at these.
Entry price on performance nights around the £8-£12 mark; 11 Gillett Square N16 8AZ; 020 7254 4097; vortexjazz.co.uk
606 Club, Chelsea
A miniscule but legendary venue that has been on the circuit since the Seventies and only books Britain-based musicians to support the local scene. I like the cosy respectability of the atmosphere: with the teeny stage barely distinguishable from the main dining floor and the burnt orange walls decorated with sepia etchings of jazz greats, this place feels more local neighbourhood restaurant than dingy jazz club. Non-members can only attend gigs at weekends if they book a meal (two or more courses); the food is perfectly adequate (think Welsh rack of lamb and, orange-glazed duck leg, and a fish pie special) but you’re looking at a bill of £45 per head after the £10 music fee is added.
Insider’s tip: avoid the tables at the back by the bar, which can get noisy as artists congregate there between acts. The music is loud, and the tables are close together – so it’s only a good date option if you are both real jazz enthusiasts.
90 Lots Road, Chelsea, SW10 0QD; 020 7352 5953; 606club.co.uk
Funk and blues-infused jazz is the proffering at this award-winning Streatham music outfit. The Friday-night lineups are top-notch (£10 entry), but the 9pm jam sessions at the Monday night jazz workshops are free for audience members, and worth a punt for some unedited freestyling.
Insider tip: I like the mellow directionlessness of the Sunday lunch jazz events. The jerk chicken with summer coleslaw and chips (£14.95) and banoffee cheesecake with brandy sauce (£5.95) are both thoroughly decent any day of the week.
2 Empire Mews, Stanthorpe Road, Streatham, SW16 2BF;020 8835 7070; hideawaylive.co.uk
Kansas Smitty’s , Hackney
A jazz and julep bar on Broadway Market. Saturdays get pretty rammed: I prefer the Wednesday ‘Basement Tapes’ act, when the venue’s house band (think coarse, jaunty rhythms, slurry, oozing trumpet-playing and bowler hats) performs with other London-reared jazz acts.
Insider’s tip: Needless to say, you should order a mint julep – try the sleepytime cocktail with chamomile and pink peppercorn. Fortunately, you’re unlikely to fall asleep, with the amount of scotch and raspberry liqueur they put in these things.
63-65 Broadway Market E8 4PH; kansassmittys.com
The Loft @ Toulouse Lautrec, Kennington
A venue reminiscent of Paris’ pre-war jazz cafes; but expect bopping acts with real chutzpah, inflected with Latin beats. There are some important changes to note: the notorious free Monday night jazz sessions which features a new international artist each week and is hosted by the manager’s jazz group, the Jason Lyon Trio, has moved to Wednesdays as of September 2016, and there is now a £5 entry, which goes towards a drink at the bar.
Insider’s tip: book a table in the restaurant and feast on snails from Burgundy and foie gras terrine before the acts get underway.
140 Newington Butts, Kennington, SE11 4RN; 020 7582 6800; toulouselautrec.co.uk
Jazz Cafe Posk, Hammersmith
It’s set in Hammersmith’s Jewish Centre and dedicated to promoting the cultural tradition of Poland’s little known jazz movement. Polish jazz exploded in the Thirties, was repressed by Stalin, and flourished again after his death; perhaps because it matured in a state that was isolated from the west for decades, Polish jazz has a distinct sound; it’s very different from the American jazz tradition, with an almost philharmonic feel.This is the only place in London to hear it; if you are up for something completely different, this is it.
Insider’s tip: No need to drink before you come. There’s usually a complimentary vodka shot on arrival, and they have a good stock of Polish beers. Food is available – cheap, warming fare like pork and mash and hunter’s stew.
238-246 King Street W6 0RF; 07415 892436; jazzcafeposk.org
The Bull’s Head, Barnes
This ‘suburban answer to Ronnie Scott’s’ is probably the best pub in London for live jazz; it was one of the first jazz venues in Britain, in 1959, and continues to pull in world-class acts. It’s a beautiful, quirky little venue – all restored fireplaces, dogtooth sofas, chandeliers shaped like orbiting planets, and illuminated shelves filled with books. There’s live music 8:30pm-11pm most nights.
Insider’s tip: Follow your Sunday roast with one of the weekly afternoon sessions (2.30pm), which normally have a blues-y tilt.
373 Lonsdale Road, Barnes SW13 9PY; 020 8876 5241; thebullsheadbarnes.com
Jazzlive at The Crypt, Camberwell
Jazz in the basement of a Camberwell church. The crypt is the last surviving part of the Anglo-Saxon church which stood here in the 11th century, before a fire ravaged the latter in 1841. Today, The Crypt has a surprisingly warm, convivial atmosphere, all low brick alcoves, red-hued tea candles and swirling African art on the walls. Acts that play here often have a particularly transcendental or mystical sound. In fact, check in here on the third Thursday of the month for Ethereal World Music band performing ‘ethereal’ and ‘ecstatic’ cross-cultural jazz. The venue is particularly strong on jazz vocalists on other nights; Fridays bring in the strongest acts.
Insider tip: a late license until 2am from Thursday through the weekend and cheap drinking (£2 and £4 for bottled ales; wine from £12; spirit shots from £3.50) means this can easily be your final and only destination of the night.
St. Giles Church, Camberwell Church St, Camberwell,SE5 8JB; 07849 078298; jazzlive.co.uk
Cafe OTO, Dalston
Another Dalston staple which is great for free and improvisational jazz. It has the requisite trendy multispace credentials – a cafe that serves Persian food, homemade cakes and iced tea by day, and a venue for experimental music by night. It’s not perfect: the staff are mostly volunteers, and consequently there’s a high turnover, of varying quality. It’s also a hangout spot for the beards-and-knitted-jumpers brigade. But they do host some quality jazz nights.
Insider’s tip: Not all of the quirkiness here is contrived. The most compelling nights here are when the jazz is served alongside a world-music act; don’t be surprised to see a Turkish free music ensemble headlining.
18-22 Ashwin Street, Dalston, E8 3DL; 020 7923 1231; cafeoto.co.uk