Chicago can't claim to be the birthplace of jazz, but it's undeniably a city where the genre is thriving and evolving. The home of Down Beat Magazine and the fabled AACM collective, Chicago has pushed the art form in new directions for decades. While summer music festivals like the Chicago Jazz Festival and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival demonstrate the community's breadth and prowess, it's the small jazz clubs that keep the music alive throughout the year. Some of the city's best music venues are places where saxophones and improvised music dominate the calendar, introducing audiences to living legends and rising talent. Whether you prefer swing, bop, acid or free jazz, you'll find something to tap your foot along to at Chicago's best jazz clubs.
Chicago's best jazz clubs
Formerly known as the Viaduct Theater, this nondescript building is home to some of the city's most progressive jazz, contemporary classical and improvised music. Founded by local drummer and Pitchfork Music Festival talent buyer Mike Reed, Constellation boasts two performances spaces and a bar offering reasonably-priced beer and cocktails. From local jazz groups to touring avant-garde performers, the venue is Chicago's home for anything that's "too weird" for the rock clubs.
Al Capone and other gangsters used to hang here in the 1920s, but these days it’s all about the music. Owner Dave Jemilo, who returned the club to its original luster in the 1980s, books smart bebop and free jazz with a discriminating ear. Local favorites Frank Catalano and Patricia Barber both maintain residencies throughout the year (Barber’s here every Monday, if she’s not on tour). Come early, as it’s usually understandably busy.
This mainstream jazz haven runs regular, low-key residencies with some of Chicago’s most respected scene elders, Andy Brown and Mike Smith among them. Regular shows such as Charles Heath's Early Risers Jazz Jam on Sundays and the Trumpet Summit are constants of the local jazz scene that are worth revisiting. It’s a comfortable, intimate space where you can drop by for a cocktail, or make an evening of it by ordering something from this River North restaurant's respectable menu.
After closing suddenly in 2014, the Hungry Brain has been resurrected by Mike Reed, who also owns and books the nearby, experimental-leaning Constellation. The Roscoe Village bar has gotten a bit of a makeover, but visitors will still find cheap beer, a jukebox filled with deep cuts and performances from members of Chicago's thriving experimental jazz scene.
This not-for-profit, all-ages spot has quickly become one of the premier venues in the city for free jazz, electronic and other edge-riding music. You'll usually find interesting art on the walls, cheap beer at the bar and something on the calendar worth checking out in the near future. The crowd ranges from hipsters to older jazz fans to the curious and uninitiated, but there’s no intimidation factor—it’s always friendly.
Delicious epicurean cocktails might be the Logan Square bar’s forte, but the tiny room hosts more and more delightful underground pop shows and art exhibits. The crowd can’t reach triple digits, so intimacy with both the musicians and your neighbor’s elbows is inevitable. The Whistler's jazz weekly doubles up the series with cutting-edge swing and free improv now on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights.
Brendan Sodikoff took over the ’30s-era cocktail bar in 2014, and it’s still wonderfully low-key with live music, a jukebox and glowing red lights—but now with better drinks. Jazz rules the calendar, with regular appearances from the likes of Nick Mazzarella and Jeremy Cunningham, but you'll also stop by for bingo and the Clipper Cabaret burlesque show each month.
Just a short walk from Navy Pier, Chicago's newest jazz club brings straight-ahead and classic jazz performers to the stage six nights a week. The 125-seat listening room is intimate and comes with a strict no-talking policy during each set—so don't come here to chat over a saxophone solo. If you're looking for a classy night of timeless jazz in a setting that places the focus firmly on the music, you've come to the right spot.
Perhaps Chicago’s premier roots music showcase, this homey haunt out in Berwyn is best known for an array of folk, zydeco, country, rockabilly and blues acts. It's also one of the few remaining outposts for big-band jazz, hosting local swing orchestras on Sundays. Wednesday's SideBar Sessions serve up open jams with classic cocktails.
Long heralded as Chicago’s leading jazz venue, the venerable club has been forced to relocate more than once since its inception in 1947. However, since moving to swank new digs in 2008, the Showcase has easily reestablished its reputation for bringing in top-shelf talent like the Bad Plus and Miguel Zenón.
In the midst of Wicker Park’s vibrant nightlife quarter, Davenport’s specializes in old-fashioned cabaret reinterpreted by younger, hipper performers. The venue itself is colorful and modern, a far cry from what you might expect given the lineups. If your idea of jazz is more in line with the music depicted in La La Land, you'll have a blast singing along to the standards that get belted out here.
Though it sits on Muddy Waters Drive, this South Bronzeville/North Kenwood club is far more bop than blues. It plays host to the Hyde Park Jazz Society on Sunday nights ($10, students $5), an under-the-radar option for traditionalists. Names like Fred Jackson (sax) and Victor Goines (clarinet) pass through and blow between the brick walls.
A beautiful piece of modern architecture that feels like an art museum, the Logan Center hosts gigs during its annual concert series, The University of Chicago Presents: Jazz at the Logan. Modern acts fill the bill, including outfits like the Brad Mehldau Trio, Anat Cohen and more.