Heard a little bit about Harlem, and ready to explore? Take your Uber, cab or the metro up to Harlem, enjoy a great meal (try lunch at Sylvia's and dinner at the Red Rooster), and make sure to plan a night around a jazz show. There's always the Apollo Theater, but if you're ready to explore a bit off the beaten path, read on:
If you’re looking for genuine Harlem jazz, you won’t find a more authentic (and fun!) experience than at Bill’s Place. This is where (according to legend) Billie Holiday was first discovered at age 17 and jazz greats Fats Waller and Willie “The Lion” Smith regularly tickled the ivories while guests indulged in homemade booze during Prohibition.
This isn’t your modern, trendy speakeasy—it’s a two-room, no-frills parlor, where small crowds gather in a living room to watch founder Bill Saxton (a world-class saxophonist) lead the Harlem All Stars on Friday and Saturday nights. Guests sit within arm’s reach of the lively and talented musicians, as they rouse the crowds on bass, drums, sax and keys.
Technically, this is a dry establishment (no alcohol allowed). But speakeasies, by nature, don’t follow the rules: On a recent visit, Bill’s Place offered cups, ice and corkscrews to guests on a BYOB basis. Try your luck with your own bottle.
Most of the cabarets, clubs and speakeasies from the 1920s that called W. 133rd Street home are now gone, but luckily, the legacy of its “Swing Street” nickname lives on at Bill’s Place. —Joni Sweet
Get there: Bill’s Place, 148 W. 133rd St., 212.281.0777, billsplaceharlem.com. Reservations a must.
Ready to head even further off the beaten path in Harlem for a night of jazz? If Bill's Place or Ginny's Supper Club don't have jazz shows scheduled, as was the case on my recent visit, head to Paris Blues on W. 121st St.
This little club is the very definition of a dive bar, so there's no need to dress to impress, but do expect to be bowled over acoustically. There's no stage; instead, the musicians gather in a small recess near the end of the bar—as they have since 1969—and they play their hearts out to a crowd that's a mix of locals and jazz aficionados visiting from around the world.
There's usually no cover, but do expect the possibility of a two-drink minimum, and bring some cash to tip the band. Either gather at the bar with the spirited bartenders or in the booths area where the seating runs a bit lilliputian. Don't forget to look up from your stool or booth for publicity photos of some jazz greats and touring musicians, and soak in the history of this venue, still owned and operated by founder Samuel Hargress. The vibe is quite friendly, lively and a touch communal; there's sometimes a slow cooker with a pot of food for all to enjoy, and the team working here will have you feeling like you're in their living room: no pretense, just jazz and blues. —Geoff Kohl
Get there: Paris Blues, W. 121st St. and corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. (7th Ave.), Harlem, 917.257.7831, parisbluesharlem.com.