The skies turn blue and then greyish with patches of pink, orange and red. Day turns into night while I watch the brightly coloured fragments of the sky change shape, and I feel like as if I am on cloud nine. In reality, I am outside on the 70th floor of the Rockefeller Center, enjoying an undisrupted view of the city. New York City that is.
As the sky darkens, city lights are turned on and within minutes the streets and buildings below have turned into a blanket of dazzling lights. But it is the building right in front me that steels the show and gets my full attention. There is the Eiffel Tower lights show in Paris and there is the Empire State Building lighting up the skies of New York City. And this one comes with an anthem – at least, for me. As I plug in my earphones and press play I am accompanied by Alicia Keys and Jay Z. Could there be a better moment and location to listen to ‘Empire State of Mind’? The tourists around me who are bending their arms in uncomfortable positions for a selfie, dissolve to an unimportant background. “Now you’re in New York, these streets will make you feel brand new, big lights will inspire you. Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York”. Not feeling so brand new after a full day of exploring the city, but wow, are these big lights inspiring me! I stand like this for minutes and minutes, swaying my head with the music, the wind blowing in my face from between two massive glass windows that are part of the enclosure of the outside observation deck. I have lost count of how many times the song has been on repeat and I have no clue at what point in time exactly the tourists surrounding me have left, but now it is just me – and my lover, mr photographer who has just finished the difficult task to capture this billion-dollar-view without a tripod. We hold each other tight and take in the view together. The “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” is at our feet.
We create our own dream of unforgettable New York City nights by combining city lights with music. After the Empire State we swap Alicia Keys and Jay Z. for more ‘pure’ music that is food for the soul: jazz. The Big Apple has a plethora of jazz artists and venues alike. The first sounds from a saxophone greet us during a walk through Central Park, where a musician treats passers-by for smooth tones in the spring breeze. In the evening, when the crowds disappear from the park as locals and tourists flock to restaurants or back to their homes or hotels, we head up to Jazz at Lincoln Center. The elevator in the central hall of the building on Columbus Circle that also houses luxury shops and offices, whizzes us up to the 5th floor. As we pay our entrance fee, funky tones sound from Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola where a big band formed by students and alumni of the renowned Julliard School are performing tonight. Inside, we settle on two of the bar stools lined up against the wall. It is not just the band that has my attention now. The wall behind the band is entirely made out of glass. It is definitely a different experience than a small, grubby underground jazz café. We cheer with a glass of red wine and enjoy the music while our eyes feast on the intense faces and muscle movements of the musicians and the views of NYC Upper West and East Side – what a luxury to savour all of this at once. The performance comes to an end quicker than our bottle of wine, and as the audience leaves the room, we move to the window to enjoy the view of the skyscrapers towering besides Central Park, that has now become a dark patch of land in a sea of city lights. A romantic moment that does not last for long, as this jazz venue is just for performances which means that while we drain our glasses, chairs are already being put on the tables – ready for the cleaning company to mop the floor – and the waiters are counting their tips. We decide that we should find a small, grubby underground jazz café tomorrow evening.
And so the next day we head for Greenwich Village, a neighbourhood bustling with tipsy youngsters on their way to and from restaurants and pubs. Greenwich Village is also home to the most popular jazz club of the city: Blue Note. We are going in another direction though. Arriving at tiny jazz club Smalls, we are told that the first session of the evening is sold out. We buy a ticket at the door for the next session and take an evening stroll through the neighbourhood instead. Only two blocks away from the entertainment area we find ourselves out of the revelry and into the beauty of Greenwich Village’s residential area, its streets glistening from the rain that came pouring down earlier this evening. It is the most wonderful wait we have ever had before heading into a club.
Smalls is everything I had hoped for: a cramped, dimly-lit basement with brick walls covered with photos of jazz legends. One single waitress takes everyone’s orders as people take a seat – it is the only way to make sure everyone gets a drink before the performance starts, as the space is simply too tiny to get up and order at the bar yourself. Our jazz evening is filled with saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass and drums. Each musician is a talented artist on his own, carried away by their music as they perform solos, seizing the moment and visibly enjoying themselves as they play together. The drummer bites his lip as he performs his solo, the double bass player softly nods his head to the music, his hands span the neck of the instrument, his fingers pulling on its snares. The trumpetist’s cheeks are stretched by the air he fills them with, and he moves his upper body to the rhythm of the tones coming from the bell of the trumpet. The saxophonist closes his eyes and bends slightly as he works the keys for a spectacular performance. The only musician I am unable to see from my position right next to the podium as she plays the black wing, is the pianist. But she makes an impression on me anyway, the only woman on stage this evening looks more like a classical piano teacher than a jazz artist. But not when you close your eyes. What a wonderful melting pot of sounds and people tonight.
As we roll through the city at night in a yellow cab that takes us back to our hostel, Frank Sinatra starts to sing in my mind “I wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep”. We could have easily stayed at Smalls until the wee hours of the morning, but there’s just so much to see and do in this concrete jungle that we call it a night at 3 AM and simply cannot wait to start the next day. There is only one way to end this story right, and that is by going back to Alicia Keys’ and Jay Z’s Empire State of Mind: “No place in the world that could compare”.
Say yes to the mighty combination of New York & (jazz) music yourself:
Make your New York moments even more special and block out the sounds of crazy tourists by perfect soundtracks to your own NYC experience. As I was looking for a list of NYC themed songs to share with you here, I found a great list on Time Out, and they even have my two favourites on number 1 and 2! I will definitely make a playlist out of this overview for my next New York trip!
Jazz in New York
Jazz can be found for free in Central Park, you just have to find yourself the street musician playing this music genre. Chances are high near the Bethesda Fountain. Restaurant Tavern on the Green in Central Park hosts live jazz session on Friday and Saturday evenings 6pm-10pm. The jazz is for free, but the food is pricy, so only check this out if you think this is a perfect combination of two virtues.
New York has jazz venues all around town, and what will probably help you most in choosing where you want to go is to decide if you want to go for a small basement jazz club where you will find yourself shoulder to shoulder with a beer in your hand, or for the more fancy dinner-club vibe where you can sip your glass of high quality wine from a comfortable chair while listening to high quality music at the same time.
I fell in love with Smalls and would definitely come back here again! Start your evening with a nice dinner in one of the many restaurants in Greenwich Village, for instance Suprema Provisions on 305 Bleecker Street where you can enjoy a delicious mushroom black garlic papardelle. The place fills up for dinner, so make a reservation to be sure of a table.
Since I haven’t had the time (yet) to visit all the wonderful jazz venues on offer, I refer you to another list coming from Time Out where you will find their 14 favourites with a short description of the venue to help you make this tough decision: https://www.timeout.com/newyork/live-music/best-jazz-clubs-in-nyc
The best viewpoints to get carried away by a sea of city lights
A dilemma many visitors face is whether they should whizz up to the Empire State Buiding or Top of the Rock. If you have the budget to go up both, I highly recommend doing so. The views from the Empire State Building are ridiculously beautiful and the outside observation deck has a fenced enclosure which means you feel the wind blow in your face from the 86th floor and you can make undisrupted photos by sticking your camera through one of the checks. Buy a combination ticket that allows you to go up twice in one day (included when you have a New York Pass) and go up early morning and during night-time to beat the crowds. We were up here at 1 AM and shared the deck with just ten other people. What the Empire State does not offer though, is the view of the Empire State Building itself. Go up here just before sunset to see for yourself how the city transforms to a sea of lights. Get your tickets in advance – the screens at the ticket box office will display the sunset time for the day. If a visit to the two most spectacular outside observation decks do not fit your budget, you might want to try out sipping a cocktail on the 65th floor of the Rockefeller Center instead. The cocktail will be an expensive one, but the views are for free. Just a slight warning: Bar SixtyFive often gets booked for private events quite often, so give them a call beforehand if you’re not in the neighbourhood already, before you head up with the fanciest clothes you can find in your suitcase.