As one of the biggest cities in Europe, there are a whole bunch of London jazz clubs to check out, covering everything from swinging singers through to contemporary, modern jazz.
Whilst England as a whole is home to many great cities presenting jazz (some of the bigger ones include Southampton, Bristol, Birmingham Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds & Newcastle…), the London jazz scene is still the biggest and, as such, is an important stop to include on any tour schedule (particularly if you’re promoting a new album).
We’ve put together some highlights from our London-related work over the years, and asked some of the jazz musicians who’ve played there to give some extra insight.
The clubs and venues listed here cover a wide range of styles, but we stuck to several key criteria:
- All clubs regularly programme international artists (as well as domestic, of course)
- All clubs have had gig reviews in British jazz blogs, national newspapers and jazz magazines
- All have an acoustic grand piano available (which, we think, shows a certain level of seriousness in a jazz club)
Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club
Ronnie Scotts is easily the most famous of the London jazz clubs – and arguably one of the most well-known jazz venues in the world.
It’s located in the very central Soho district of London which makes it an easy proposition for both fans and journalists to get to (the BBC is just round the corner) and means most shows are sold out.
Depending on the artist, the main show audience sometimes borders on ‘upmarket tourist’ but the club enforce a strict policy of silence during the gigs so music remains very much the focus.
They also host The Late Late Show several times a week: a set from a specially chosen band which merges into a jam session until 3am. Many of London’s best jazz musicians stop by to sit-in with the house band.
Musical Style: Whilst they do programme strands of more niche music (check out the piano festival, for example), the main bulk of the programme is big name international jazz artists – often American.
Past names: Wynton Marsalis, Prince, Stacey Kent, Jamie Cullum, Chet Baker…
Find out more: We interviewed Nick Lewis from the Ronnie Scott’s programming team
Pizza Express Jazz Club
Situated less than a 5 minute walk from Ronnie Scotts, this basement jazz club has a long history in presenting top local and international jazz artists 7 nights a week.
As part of the Pizza Express chain of restaurants, they have a large reach in terms of mailing list & social media and a decent regular audience – who come for the great pizza as well as the jazz – for its 115 capacity.
Musical Style: As with Ronnie Scott’s, they present some big names in the straight-ahead jazz tradition but with top local British jazz musicians. Occasionally they are presenting artists that veer more towards cabaret, but generally this is reserved for their smaller sister-club The Pheasantry.
They also have several mini-festivals throughout the year which have included “Polish Jazz”, “Steinway Piano Duos” and “Revoice” (vocalists).
Past names: Kenny Garrett, Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, E.S.T
Venue website: pizzaexpresslive.com
The 606 Jazz Club
A small but legendary jazz club on the west side of London, in the capital’s Chelsea district, presenting jazz 7 nights a week.
They serve food during the gigs but the audiences are pretty respectful of the music.
There are often 2 different bands a night and, due to the focus on UK-based (but not necessarily British) musicians, it’s a regular jazzer hangout so good for meeting other musicians, especially if you’re new in town.
Musical Style: A pretty even mixture of jazz singers and instrumental (saxophone!)-led groups leaning more towards great straight-ahead swinging jazz or latin music including some big band sessions.
Past names: Gilad Atzmon, Patrick Cornelius, Claire Martin, Mornington Lockett, Stan Sulzmann
Situated in East-London’s hipster district, The Vortex has forged a reputation as the go-to place for forward-thinking contemporary jazz in London.
In this recent interview with the Vortex’s co-programmer Kim Macari, she said: “The club’s been running for over 30 years and it’s known as a place that champions original music with a particular fondness for music that’s on the freer, more improv-y end of the spectrum. We sit sort of halfway between Ronnie Scotts and Cafe Oto on the programming spectrum.”
The programme features plenty of album launches from London’s leading jazz groups, as well as a healthy mix of European (German, Scandinavian…) musicians.
Its location makes it a little less accessible than the likes of Ronnie Scott’s and Pizza Express but, as long as the music appeals, it’s worth the trip and very much on the radar of jazz journalists and fans alike.
Musical Style: Plenty of instrumental groups with a focus on new, contemporary and avant-garde jazz.
Past names: Evan Parker, Michael Wollny, Ingrid Laubrock, Tim Berne, Kenny Wheeler, Bobo Stenson
Venue website: vortexjazz.co.uk
Not technically a jazz club – more 2 concert halls within the super-modern Kings Place building which also houses The Guardian newspaper – but they present enough quality international jazz to make the list.
They’re often programming quite far in advance (sometimes as much as 12+ months) and focus on ‘strands’ such as 2014’s “Scene Norway” featuring Nils Petter Molvær and 2020’s “London Piano Festival”.
Musical Style: Normally focused on ‘new’ music (as opposed to American songbook or straight ahead jazz) with a slight leaning towards the European jazz tradition.
Past names: Courtney Pine, Thomas Strønen, Kit Downes, Nils Petter Molvær, Nik Bärtsch
Ironically, given the name, the Jazz Cafe is actually more of a soul, funk & blues venue that turns into a nightclub later in the evenings, particularly at weekends.
It’s mainly standing-only with a capacity of more than 400 and, as such, doesn’t present a lot of new jazz projects. The bands need to be able to bring a lot of fans with them so it’s more suited to groups who have a touring history in London.
It’s well placed – in the hip Camden part of the city – and is one of the few London jazz clubs that’s widely known internationally.
Musical Style: Jazz, Soul, Funk, R&B, Reggae
Past names: Abdullah Ibrahim, Edwin Starr, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Amy Winehouse
The newest venue on this list, Kansas Smitty’s venue was set up in 2015 as a home for the resident house band, who also go by the name of Kansas Smitty’s. As the organiser’s cl House Band realised they needed a home for their music.
This intimate basement bar is a rehearsal space for the band as well as a live music venue. Based on Broadway Market in the East London Borough of Hackney, a real musical community has built up around this jazz club in just a few short years.
Musical style: Kansas Smitty’s (the band) is led by American-Italian alto-saxophonist/clarinettist Giacomo Smith. They pride themselves on bridging the gap between traditional and modern jazz forms, which can also be seen in their programming,
Past gigs: If you want an idea of what’s happening with the younger generation of London jazz musicians today, they’ve probably played this venue! Also a few international guests along the way…
Venue website: kansassmittys.com
Set in the South-East London district of Kennington, Toulouse Lautrec pays tribute to its vintage French roots with a popular mixture of food, wine and jazz spread across two rooms – a jazz club and a piano bar.
Something of a hidden gem, it’s a firm favourite with many London jazz singers in particular and its shows cover a range of styles taking in Swing, Jazz, Blues, Soul, Cabaret, Musicals & Burlesque.
”Toulouse Lautrec is my local – I walk 10mins to gig there. Beautiful 3 storey wooden floor/staircase jazz club/ French themed restaurant (food is obscenely delicious) run by the Regent Brothers. Two grand pianos (piano bar + jazz club – I’ve regularly played both) lively programme of all kinds of music, cabaret and culture. The owner, Nolan, is hugely loved by London musicians and he has a welcoming ‘can do’ vibe.” – Faye Patton, London jazz musician
Venue website: toulouselautrec.co.uk
If you’re looking to get to know the London jazz clubs – and its scene in general – a little better, I hope that was a good introduction. It’s part of our series focusing on the best jazz clubs & festivals around the world.
If you’re a British jazz musician who’s familiar with the scene, I’m sure there’s tons of smaller venues you think we should have included… feel free to add them in the comments below!
Want more on the UK scene? Check out these 8 great British jazz blogs.