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Manhattan's Music Scene

Written by: Isabelle Banin. Published: August 26, 2023.

From record shops to live concert venues, NYC's music scene has something for everyone. We've highlighted some of our favorite musical destinations below, but we hope you'll have a chance to explore far beyond our list.

Lost Gem
Smalls 1 Jazz Blues West Village


Signaled by a saxophone hanging above the door, we headed down the winding staircase into the basement of a West Village building to find Smalls Jazz Club, which has been honoring New York City’s romantic past with jazz music since its opening in 1994. Named for the Sandlot character, Smalls is an apt name for this intimate, dimly lit space with a charmingly eclectic collection of mismatched chairs and stools arranged around a tiny stage at the forefront. Founder Mitch Borden, who owns the space with partner Spike Wilner, is quick to claim that nothing compared to early Smalls. “I never locked the door and everyone had a key anyways. There was nothing to steal down here - it was like the Little Rascals club, ” he recalled. One particular memory that stood out was their opening: “Our first show was on May 20, 1994. We didn’t have a liquor license and we stayed open ‘til eight am. It was ten hours of jazz with free food and free beer, and the free beer was really awful. ” Since that first show, Smalls has established itself as a central fixture in the West Village jazz scene, featuring a number of notable artists such as Peter Bernstein, Bruce Barth, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, who wrote “Homage to Mitch” about Smalls' beloved owner. At the height of the jazz movement’s popularity, the West Village was home to over seventeen jazz clubs, so Smalls was in good company. In the 1990s, after Mitch opened his doors, many tried to follow suit, but few have endured aside from Smalls. “A lot of people see me doing this without a liquor license and think, ‘Oh, this must be easy, ’” he says, “and it is easy, but it can take a while to make a profit. ” Borden and his staff have also adapted well to the Internet age, being one of the first clubs to live stream their shows, and they now sell an archive of all of their performances since 2007. This type of innovation is reflective of what Mitch describes as the constantly changing nature of jazz music itself, with certain virtuosos coming out with a song that will change the whole scene. He remarks, “That’s something I guess a jazz musician wants to do - make his mark - even though not that many songs stick. ” He cites Kenny Barron’s “Voyage” as an example of this kind of phenomenon.

Lost Gem
Ashford & Simpson's Sugar Bar 1 Live Music African Late Night Eats Upper West Side

Ashford & Simpson's Sugar Bar

When the Manhattan Sideways team walked into Sugar Bar, there was an audible reaction. It was unlike anything we had ever seen: the walls are covered in decorations and musical instruments from Africa and a roof of straw covers the full-length bar. Colorful masks adorn the doors and lights peek out of artistic holes in red pipes, giving off a warm orange glow. Everything appears to be made of organic material: even the chairs are made of pieces of wood lashed together. In the back of the main room, a cave is dug into the wall where performing acts usually set up to play. That is what Sugar Bar is best known for: the music. Some truly soulful artists, such as Roberta Flack and Allison Williams, have passed under the straw roof. We learned from one of the servers, who also occasionally plays bass and guitar on Tuesdays, "For musicians, this is the place to be. This is the scene. "Leila, who is in charge of PR for Sugar Bar, told us a bit about its history. It was opened in 1996 by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, also known as the songwriting/performing duo Ashford and Simpson. All of the extraordinary pieces that decorate the space are part of their personal art collection. Their goal was to bring the culture and warmth of Africa to New York City in an “east meets west” fusion atmosphere. The décor of the space represents this mixture of worlds: While most of the pieces – such as the swords, carvings, and statues – are from Africa, there are many American pieces placed seamlessly alongside them. For example, Leila showed us some of the original panels from the S. S. Normandie, a ship that famously caught fire and sank in the Hudson River. I was shocked to discover that the panels were no behind glass and that any customer could go up and touch them. “This is not just a place for music, ” Leila pointed out. “It is a place for culture. It transports you to a different time and place. ”Hugo, who has been working at Sugar since 2005, took us upstairs to the Cat Lounge, which can be used as a private room but also functions as a spillover bar (Valerie Simpson own the whole building, which dates back to the early nineteenth century). Bows, arrows, and representations of giraffes and elephants surround the Cat Lounge, but it was not until Hugo urged us to look up that we understood how it got its name: an enormous cat design is sprawled out on the ceiling. Despite his long career with Sugar Bar, Hugo said that he keeps discovering new things. He pointed out two little carved faces above the stairs as we descended. “It’s a fun place to work, ” he said. “I like it. ” Leila agreed with him, joking that she has tried to leave Sugar Bar multiple times, but keeps coming back, because there is no better place to be employed. Downstairs, we met Terrell, who was manning the bar. He made us the signature "Sugartini" with cherry, peach nectar, Absolut, and peach schnapps, culminating in a not-too-sweet summery cocktail. He brought out an amazing sample platter, featuring fried catfish, jerk chicken wings, and lightly battered shrimp, which the Manhattan Sideways team delved into with vigor. Olivia exclaimed that the chicken was impossibly tender as it fell off the bone, while Tom found the two seafood dishes to be perfectly battered, providing crispiness, but not masking flavor. Nickolas and Valerie are both from South Carolina, hence the southern comfort food on the menu. Terrell then surprised us with a "Passion Island" cocktail made with lime juice, mint leaves, and coconut rum, accompanied by plates of cornbread with strawberry butter, something that is served to every guest prior to their meal. Hugo continued to entertain us behind the bar as he poured a drink of his own making, which he calls "Coquito" or "Little Coconut. " It was deeply refreshing, thanks to the healthy dose of coconut water. As if we had not eaten and drunk enough, Terrell presented us with plates of apple cobbler and bread pudding from the pastry chef, Jenny. The divine bread pudding was dripping in butter and cream, and when I took a bite of the cobbler, I immediately understood why Terrell had been raving about it. "I push the food honestly, " he said. "I can't sell something I don't eat myself, and I eat here three times a week! "The one thing we kept hearing from everyone at Sugar Bar was "You really have to come on a Thursday. " Every night has some kind of music, whether it is Blues on Tuesday or Jazz on Wednesday, but Thursday is when the Sugar Bar really heats up with its open mic. Thursdays are often so crowded that the Cat Lounge fills up right away, and famous faces, such as Stevie Wonder, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Chris Tucker have been known to come by. Hugo mentioned, "Some people have been coming every Thursday since we opened and haven't missed one week. " Terrell also urged us to come back on Thursday, saying that he would be working. "But it doesn't feel like work, " he insisted. "It feels like you're hanging out with friends until four in the morning. "

Lost Gem
The Cutting Room 1 American Bars Live Music Music Venues Nomad Murray Hill

The Cutting Room

On 24th street for ten years before moving to 32nd in 2013, the Cutting Room caught my attention before I even entered. I spotted a guitar in the window decorated with kaleidoscopic colors, and soon learned that famed artist Mark Kostabi had created it. Once indoors, I was immediately drawn in by the eighteen hanging guitars that serve as a massive chandelier. Someone had an incredible vision and was able to take what the owner, Steve Walter, described as a “white box” of a carpet store and turn it into an over-the-top venue for appreciating music. One of the two partners behind this fantastic place is Chris Noth, known for his roles as “Big” on Sex and the City and Peter Florrick in The Good Wife. He felt that Manhattan was missing the same connection and deep passion for live music that he had growing up, and he and Steve wanted to bring this back to our city. Steve is also devoted to music—growing up on the Jersey Shore, he played guitar in a band, graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and had the original vision of a 1940s supper club that is now pulsing on 32nd. The stunning forty-six foot mahogany wood bar is gigantic, evoking the image of a Stratocaster – a Fender guitar model – wrapping itself around one whole side of the room. They built a grand staircase in the center, where there is a gallery with Kathrina Miccio’s paintings of iconic musicians. I took the challenge and attempted to name as many as I could, from Billie Holiday to Billy Joel and BB King, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Keith Richards, Steven Tyler and Jimmy Page in the middle. Continuing my walk around the staircase, I found a collection of photographs with fascinating shots of Paul, John, George and Ringo done by Lennon’s former girlfriend, May Pang. The Cutting Room offers an eclectic mix of performers, and on any given night there may be several shows going on—sometimes jazz and rock, and sometimes even classical music. Mondays are usually devoted to Broadway, where theater stars drop in to perform. Hearing Steve rattle off the long list of musicians, spanning decades, who have performed in both the former space and the current one was like listening to a who’s who in the music hall of fame: Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Sting, Adam Levine, and not too long ago, ninety-four year old Pete Seeger. How I wish I had known about that event. From the industry’s top musicians to the up-and-comers, every night is an exhilarating experience that includes fresh American fare, a bottle of wine and a good crowd of people.

On almost every night of the week, you can expect the jazz artists and jam bands at Smalls Jazz Club to play until midnight. If you prefer your concert experience to involve dinner, Ashford & Simpson's Sugar Bar offers delicious Southern cooking alongside a variety of musical performances. To boost your record or CD collection, Academy Records & CDs is a haven for devotees of all styles of music, with an emphasis placed on classical and jazz. And last but not least, on any given night there may be several shows going on at The Cutting Room—featuring both emerging and highly established artists of all genres.

Lost Gem
Rock and Soul 1 Stereo Equipment Music and Instruments Record Shops Family Owned undefined

Rock and Soul

Sharon’s family was not exactly in the business of music; they were in the business of giving people what they wanted. They emigrated from Israel in the early 1970s with nothing to their names and the hope of making a living and a better life. As electronics were the rage at the time, they opened a consumer electronics shop in 1975. But, as Sharon said, “they were smart about it. ” As the years went on, the demand for music and records began to rise, and, accordingly, Sharon’s family began selling records and record players in their shop. Rock and Soul became one of the first record and DJ stores. Through the golden age of the record, business boomed, and Rock and Soul reached many loyal customers. In the late 1980s, however, the record industry hit an all-too-well-known speed bump: the CD. As consumers of records began to fall from the grid, record stores followed suit. In an almost twenty-year dry spell, Rock and Soul was one of the only stores that continued to sell records. “We didn’t have the heart to let go, ” Sharon, now the store manager, explained. But it was the DJ equipment the store sold that kept it afloat. Rock and Soul is covered wall-to-wall in music equipment, from microphones to amplifiers to records and cover art. Boxes of records are crammed into the back, with listening stations in the corner. The day I was there, electronic music was blasting from a loft above. I had walked in on one of the store’s frequent “Scratch Pad Popup” events, during which DJs come in to play records on the store’s equipment and network with each other. “We care about sound, ” said Sharon. “Anything related to sound. ”In an age where any and all music is but a click away, Sharon acknowledged that people who buy records often do so for the aesthetic value. “It’s a different kind of person buying records, ” she said. “It’s someone looking for cool cover art, maybe something to hang up in their room. ” Colored records, in fact, are generally intended for display - it is frowned upon to play (and potentially scratch) them. But Sharon also emphasized the unique auditory value of record music. “Listen to a record and you’ll hear the whole picture, ” she said. “The keyboard, the saxophone: it’s all richer. You’re hearing it the way it’s meant to be heard. ” She noted that modern records are thicker than they have been in years past, delivering an even higher quality of sound. Such value translates to DJ work as well, according to Shawn McAdams, a frequent customer of Rock and Soul. Shawn has been a DJ since 1993, and is known in the DJ world as “Right On Shawn. ” More importantly, he is a DJ who uses records. “With DJs, ” he said, “people like to see the artwork. It’s so boring to see a guy just sitting on his laptop. ” But he admits that his methods are sometimes a surprise. “People often ask me, ‘Do they still make records? ’” he laughed. “That’s my favorite. ”The listening stations at Rock and Soul, it seems, are a DJ’s best friend. “I just play different things, ” said Shawn of his music choice, as he hefted a large stack of records onto the counter. “You listen until you find stuff that sounds good. ”Keith Dumpson is a record salesman at Rock and Soul, and has been for over forty years. Before that, he was working at a record store on 117th street, where he met people in the industry and learned how to produce music. His days were busy: “I would get up at five, work hard all day, and then work hard in the studio after. ” The opportunity to work at Rock and Soul, he said, changed his life. “They tested me out alphabetizing records, ” he recalled of the interview. “And I knew how to do that. I knew all the songs. ”Keith had a lot to say about the state of the music industry. “The technology today, it makes you lazy, ” he said. “Now you push a button, something comes out, and everyone’s cheering. ” He believes this has decreased the quality of music throughout his lifetime. “The new music ain’t happening. Years ago, music was a lot better. It was all records back then, and vinyl was cheaper. Hip hop was cleaner and made more sense. There’s no more real musicians like there used to be back in the day. Now the songs make no sense. A cat swallowing a razor blade is a hit. People today have no spirit of song. ”“Except for Beyonce, ” he quickly clarified. The sound afforded by the record, Keith believes, is necessary for good music. “It’s not just pushing buttons on there, ” he said. “It’s playing instruments. Music. ” Even with records making a comeback, the ease of downloading still makes it difficult for stores like Rock and Soul to keep their doors open. Though they have DJ equipment sales to carry it along, other stores are not so lucky. “You’ve got to shop in the store, ” said Sharon. “You can’t purchase online. " For shops like these, it is the in-person, non-digital customers who keep them in business.

Lost Gem
Two E Lounge 1 Jazz Blues Breakfast Lounges American undefined

Two E Lounge

While sitting comfortably in the lounge area of The Pierre Hotel, I literally witnessed the conception of a "pop-up. "  A table and chairs were being rolled out and within minutes set up elegantly with a black tablecloth and rose petals strewn across the center. The staff at Two East were preparing for their Tuesday evening Social Club. Engaging in conversation with executive chef Ashfer Biju, head pastry chef Michael Mignano, Director of Marketing, Emily Venugopal and singer, Claire Khodara, they each offered their personal connection to this very special evening as it was getting ready to unfold. One might think of it as "unusual, " seated at this table, Emily stated, but she assured me that I would feel like I was in my own little world, elevated - propped up on comfortable bar level chairs surrounded by other foodies - where I would be able to watch and listen to Claire, the performer of the evening, while others sat below quietly enjoying a drink, some appetizers and pleasant background live music. The concept behind Chef Ashfer's Social Club is purely to bring people and food together in the best possible setting. His feeling is that people work hard and have little time to socialize outside of the office. Inside the Pierre's lounge area, men and women are encouraged to treat themselves to a mystery night out either solo, with a date, or, of course, book the entire communal table for twelve. No matter the choice, diners are promised to be taken on a culinary adventure. For $95. 00, the kitchen rolls out fourteen different courses with a cocktail to kick it off and wine pairings throughout the meal. The best part, however, was each time the two chefs popped out from the kitchen to explain what we were tasting, what inspired the dish, and to educate us on the wonders of curry and other spices. I enjoyed listening to Ashfer's extraordinary stories of travel around the world. He has cooked with a multitude of chefs who exposed him to tastes and flavors from Malaysia to the Maltese Islands, and from the Middle East to the Maldives. I was, thus, eager to participate in that evening's "Two E Returns East, " a themed meal accenting ingredients from China, Japan and India. Ashfer was born into a family of restaurateurs. His father continues to run two dining spots in Southeast Asia, but it was his grandfather who appears to have had a profound influence on him. Despite his efforts to convince other family members not to go into this business, after speaking with Ashfer for over an hour, I realized that it was this man that instilled the spark of travel and the love of food in him from a very early age while growing up in India. Apparently, the Pierre has a wondrous way of luring its chefs back, as is the case with Michael Mignano, who worked in the hotel's kitchen from 1998 until 2005. In 2011, he heeded the call to return as head pastry chef. For those years in between, Michael worked with the creme de la creme in the dessert world, appeared on Food Network shows, and ran his own, highly successful bakery in Port Washington, NY. As Ashfer referred to Michael, "He is my trump card in the kitchen. " Listening to the two men finish each other's sentences gave me deep insight into how well their relationship works. Together, they explained how they choose not to follow trends, but rather prefer to "create the trend, themselves. " They went on to say that it is always a chef's goal to be recognized, but that most do not realize what goes into preparing an exceptional meal. Yes, it is a science, but to these two men it is truly an art - one that takes a lot to pioneer day in and day out. They then described themselves as "artists of the senses - all five of them. "When discussing what influenced Michael most to pursue a career in cooking, he explained that he grew up in Queens, where food and family were at the core of his existence. He continued on by saying that he had a huge diversity of friends. "Since the age of five, I went to people's homes who were from Vietnam, South Africa, Europe - you name it. " He learned to try everyone's cooking and to appreciate not only the magic that goes into every dish, but also the passion. Today, Michael said that he continues to incorporate slight nuances from his own childhood experiences into each of the delectable desserts he imagines. Participating in our discussion was Claire. I would shortly have the pleasure of listening to her melodic voice while I indulged in course after course of some of the best vegetarian food (specially prepared for me) I have ever had. Although Claire only began her singing engagements at The Pierre in early 2015, she has already established her own following including a large showing of friends and family who come by to support her. Claire has spent a considerable amount of time flying back and forth between the U. S. and England, where she went to university and began her singing career. Moving back to New York at one point, she made it quite far on season nine's American Idol, and then, as she stated, "I sang at weddings and did a lot of the national anthem singing hoping to become a rockstar. " It was not until she returned to England, met her future husband, and was, ultimately, recognized by London's most elite, iconic clubs, including the exclusive Annabel's, that her career took off. Claire, once again, resides in New York, but continues to fly across the pond to perform in London. Upon her arrival back in the States, she put together an album, which Sony described as "country jazz, " though she prefers to call her music "soul pop. "When I asked Claire if she would be able to simply state her mission to me as a singer, she thoughtfully replied, "I honestly want to spread peace. I want to make people feel calm and relaxed. " She stopped herself and asked, "Does that sound dorky? " After listening to her for three straight hours, my answer is, without a doubt, no. Claire's voice was a beautiful backdrop to an evening filled with interesting company, phenomenal food and two extraordinary chefs. Special note: When Claire was searching for someone to "dress" her for her nightly performances on stage, she turned to Zac Posen, who designed the dress that her mother wore to her wedding. Claire said it is such fun to have ten outfits arrive each week from Zac that she can select from - sadly she must return them afterwards - but, in the meantime, she does look stunning as she is a tall magnificent woman, both inside and out. It was interesting to learn a bit about Zac Posen - this renowned designer who, although an international star with his classic, chic clothing, has his roots right here in Brooklyn. Two Manhattan Sideways team members, Tom and Olivia, returned to the Two E Lounge for a special event towards the end of 2015. Diwali is the Hindu festival of lights that occurs every autumn in the northern hemisphere. They found the space to be completely transformed from when we were last there listening to Claire Khodara sing: flower petals, chrysanthemum heads, and candles covered every available space and a tower with cubby holes filled with Indian delicacies occupied the center. The two told me that they have never seen such exquisite saris as the ones worn by the guests. Together with a room filled with guests, Tom and Olivia dined on small shot glasses full of goat cheese, beet, and orange slices as well as rock shrimp with tamarind aioli while listening to the chill sounds of Sa, a group that performs music with Indian root melodies. There was a “Tawa and Chaat” station where cooks served up lamb kebabs, green pea samosas, and more. On the other side of the room, an appetizer table was set up with traditional Indian food reinterpreted, including lamb koftas, biryani bowls, and kulchas. Ashfer proudly told Tom and Olivia that his sous chef, Manjit Manohar, had a large part in the menu for the evening. As Tom was taking a shot of Ashfer, Manjit, and Michael, the plates of mouth-watering Indian-inspired desserts were brought out, decorated with gold flecks. This was the Pierre’s first attempt at hosting a Diwali celebration, but we have no doubt that the beautiful décor, and visibly happy guests will inspire them to continue this tradition in 2016.