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Travel Europe through the 10 greatest jazz clubs

“Life is a lot like jazz… it’s best when you improvise.” – George Gershwin

Given just how difficult the terrain of tourism has looked amid a global pandemic, there’s an added credence in George Gershwin’s words on life, a time when adjusted improvisation is a necessary factor of existence as the world slowly returns to a period of normality.

With a renewed vigour to live life to its fullest after a prolonged period of time spent in a socially distanced lockdown, tourism has planted its feet and defiantly attempted to claw back a sense of regularity. Like some of the jazz icons that have come and gone, the defiance to keep on playing through the toughest moments feels like a duality of life.

With that in mind, we’ve tried to put together a unique tour guide across the continent of Europe whose map contains musical notes instead of old stereotypical signs. Though the countries of Europe are culturally diverse, they have one thing in common; their love for jazz music.

The roots of jazz lie halfway around the world, within the African-American community in the US. However, the sounds of jazz drifted somewhat poetically across the Atlantic and travelled to Europe owing to its rapid popularity among musicians and audience alike. Reaching the shores of Europe amid the First World War, it blended with other styles and gave rise to a distinct European form of jazz in a period of cultural revolution.

Since then, a host of jazz clubs have emerged throughout the continent, nurturing some very talented artists and pampering the audience with high-quality music. It wouldn’t be long before European venues created their own style, their own sound and their own vibes. It’s a scenario that has continued to thrive in the 21st century and with a new generation once again finding the beauty in jazz, we imagine it will stretch even further still.

Here are the best jazz clubs that will lead you like the pied piper, across the continent of Europe.

The best jazz clubs in Europe:

Porgy and Bess, Vienna

Since we are linking up the continent through music, it is only pertinent to start with the birthplace of musical maestros such as Haydn, Mozart and Strauss; Vienna, Austria. With such a rich legacy, it has gained an imperial status and has maintained it responsibly through the years. Though the hub of classical musical elites, Vienna warmly welcomed the foreign guest, jazz, making it comfortable enough to stay on.

Porgy and Bess is a modern club designed like a mini-concert hall, making room for 350 listeners. With its top-notch equipment and service, it has attracted a number of high rated players over time. The crowd at Porgy and Bess have proved to be genuine music lovers, who are not only respectful but also attentive.

The venue hosts musical events every night exhibiting a wide range of artists varying from the evergreen Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera to the experimental covers of central European virtuosi. Admission to this place costs €20 and is always open for the experience except for the summer break which expands from mid-July to the end of August.

Donau 115, Berlin

Berlin’s history as Europe’s art world capital has seen it gather an influx of students and creatives over the last few years and with every such influx invariably comes a new love of jazz. Luckily, in Berlin, there’s one spot that shines brighter than most, Donau 115.

The German capital certainly isn’t lacking in live music venues and has a corner of the city dedicated to your own preference of music, that’s a guarantee. But one thing it does better than most is jazz. The most well known of these are A Trane and Zig Zag, which both deliver everything you’d expect from a big-city jazz spot.

However, our favourite has to be Donau 115, a much smaller venue in the hip district of Neukolln. It’s the kind of place that you will be able to witness post-bop jazz as well as ramshackle pop acts. It’s an unhinged variety of performers that will not only please its patrons but would have likely kept the jazz originals on their toes too.

Hot Club de Portugal, Lisbon

Lisbon is the westernmost capital city of Europe and the only one along the coast of the Atlantic. The Portuguese Riviera forms the westernmost point of Continental Europe that culminates at Cabo da Roca. Lying between the western Iberian Peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean and the River Tagus, it is also the largest city of Portugal. One of the oldest cities in the world and the second oldest capital in Europe after Athens, Lisbon also has one of Europe’s oldest jazz clubs.

Hot Clube De Portugal was established in 1948 and was structured in a minimalist style. Though a humble place, it has hosted a horde of legends such as Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and the senior-most jazz artist Lou Donaldson. Its original venue was reduced to ashes after it caught fire in 2009. The new and improved venue re-opened three years later with the help of the city’s loving residents and associations that financially supported the club.

The 140-seater club offers an intimate space that has attracted people of all ages and professions. A short walk from the Bairro Alto in central Lisbon, the club hosts more solo artists in recent times. Admission is about €7.50 which is a fair deal given its good ambience.

Harris Piano Bar, Krakow

Krakow, which is traditionally known as Cracow, is one of the oldest cities in Poland. The city dates back to the 7th century and is situated on the picturesque Vistula River in the lesser Poland province. Once the capital of Poland, it still carries forward the artistic heritage of the city. The charming and quaint city, like the rest of Poland, was the victim of Nazi occupation during the Second World War. However, the city’s beauty outlived the nightmarish memories of that time.

Harris Piano Bar is a small and cosy 70-seater club in the city of Krakow. Located in the buzzing urban space of Market Square, the club hosts mainstream music such as jazz, blues and funk. After reaching Europe in the 1920s, jazz merged with Poland’s traditional fiddle-based music to give rise to a unique form of jazz.

The repressive days of war and post-war made jazz the instrument of resistance and freedom that gained more significance in Poland over other European countries for obvious reasons. Krakow clubs like Harris and U-Muniaka have also nurtured local talents, for example, pianist Paweł Kaczmarczyk, who has now risen to the top. Harris is particularly known for its delicious food and lively ambience — a winning combination.

Reduta, Prague

Once the capital of historical Bohemia, Prague is now the capital of the Chez Republic. A densely populated metropolitan city, Prague is situated on the banks of river Vltava. Founded during the Romanesque era, it flourished through the Gothic, Baroque and Renaissances, incorporating styles of each. Naturally, there are plenty of architectural wonders like the Prague Castle, Jewish Quarter, astronomical clock, Charles Bridge and so on that attract the tourist.

Situated in the centre of the city, on Národní street, close to the National Theatre, is the oldest jazz club in Prague. Founded by bassist Jan Arnet in 1957, it took its name from the term ‘reduta’ which means a masquerade ball. It was involved with the Accord club that promoted the development of theatre and music in the country during that time.

Interestingly, the club started entertaining jazz, a condemned genre by ruling communist power, during the 1950s. The premiere concert in June 1958 included a line-up of famous exponents of Chez jazz such as Karel Velebný and Luděk Hulan. The club attracted and promoted local as well as international artists. The club also became the locus of the velvet revolution in the 1980s and survived the tumultuous regime of the communist government. It is well known for witnessing an impromptu saxophone performance by the American president Bill Clinton in 1994 too. Names such as Cecil Taylor, Ronnie Livestock and Wynton Marsalis have also been associated with Reduta.

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, Soho, London

Soho is the entertainment district of the English capital London. One of the most lively districts, its reputation as a major entertainment district stems from theatres such as the Windmill Theatre on Great Windmill Street and the Raymond Revuebar and music clubs such as the Marquee Club and the 2i’s Coffee Bar.

Among hundreds of such places, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club is special in more than one way. Founded in 1959, it has been the heart of the city’s jazz. Set up by musicians such as Ronnie Scott and Pete King, the club was opened in the basement of a building in Gerrard Street. As the club gained popularity, the venue shifted to 47 Frith Street, while the original venue continued to operate parallelly till 1967.

Many national and international musicians have frequented it, the first transatlantic artist being Zoot Sims. Johnny Griffin, Lee Konitz, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, and UK jazz musicians like Tubby Hayes and Dick Morrissey were regular performers at the club. In 1978 the club established a label of its own named Ronnie Scott’s Jazz House which produces new recordings and live performances. Ronnie Scott’s was named one of 12 venues that had made the most important contributions to jazz in the United Kingdom by the Brecon Jazz Festival in 2009.

The Verdict, Brighton

It’s not only in London that you can get some great jazz in Britain. Forever seen as the hippie capital of the UK, the seaside town of Brighton also has enough eccentric residents to demand a heavy dose of jazz on the regular. If you’re searching for a spot to settle down with a beer and listen to some toe-tapping jams then The Verdict is the place to be.

When walking to Brighton’s famous seafront from the train station it can be easy to be distracted and drift towards the buzz of The Lanes shopping district, or the glitz and regency glamour of the pier or indeed the beach itself. However, two streets back from the pier, amid a host of law firms and office buildings sits one of Brighton’s best-kept secrets.

The Verdict is a purpose-built basement awaiting your custom. Adorned with jazz pictures from across the decades, it’s hard not to get wistful in such a setting. When you consider the venue only holds 60 people, this small piece of the seaside town can suddenly feel like it is in its own world.

Jazzhus Montmartre, Copenhagen

Of course, Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, is one city in Europe where you can be safe in the knowledge that not only will you be able to attend a jazz performance but it will be a packed house full of a crowd who are just as avid fans as you are. Jazz really hit Denmark in the ’60s and Copenhagen quickly became one of the most prominent jazz-loving cities in the world, helped in no small part by the rise of the city’s inhabitants breaking into the jazz world, bassist Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen being the most famous.

The influx of Danish talent also helped to promote Denmark to the jazz artists across the world and soon the big stars from the States arrived. Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon and Ben Webster all flocked to Copenhagen and made their homes here, emboldened by the Scandinavian love of their culture — a stark contrast to the issues the trio found on home soil. With such a burgeoning scene, one would expect a brilliant jazz venue and they don’t disappoint.

Jazzhus Montmartre isn’t just a non-profit organisation, designed to enrich the jazz scene, but it is even supported by the Danish government. It’s not the only jazz venue in the city, and we’d encourage you to also explore Standard Jazz Club, which is equally brilliant.

Sunset Sunside, Paris

There’s not much you can tell a Parisian about jazz that they wouldn’t already know. The idea of the genre being a US import in this neck of Europe is, when mentioned, likely to see you leave the city under a barrage of macarons. indigenous performers have always permeated the city’s nightlife, Django Reinhardt was a frequent visitor to the city of love in the 1930s.

While that could maybe feel a little bit intimidating, Paris also boasts one of the most welcoming jazz clubs in the world; Sunset Sunside. The family-owned club, opened by Michele and Jean-Marc Portet in 1983 has always kept the purity of jazz at heart while allowing their patrons to introduce themselves to the genre more gently than most.

Miles Davis even rocked up one evening for a jam session that will live long in their history books. Located near to Notre Dame, a sign of Parisian adoration for jazz, we’d suggest you book ahead. On another note, the venue isn’t particularly renowned for dancing and we suggest you hop across the river to Caveua de La Huchette for a boogie.

The Loft, Cologne

As jazz continues to flux in popularity, it has found a brand new generation of lovers in recent years. Whether it is used as an intense expression or as the perfect sonics to soundtrack a studying session, jazz is more prevalent in younger people today than ever in recent memory. One club to benefit from such an influx of jazz lovers is the 25-year-old Loft.

Situated in Cologne, a city that has also enjoyed a hipster revolution of late, the owner Hans Martin-Müller is a classical flautist and his keen eye presides over everything. It means that while jazz is usually modern in style as well as purely improvisational, it is also always of the highest quality. Audience and musicians readily mix and while the others in our list always suggest an exceedingly high quality of performance, The Loft acts as more of a bridge between novice and expert — audience or otherwise.