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Photograph: Martha Williams

The best jazz clubs in Chicago

Whether you prefer your sax smooth, swing or skronk, we have the jazz club or bar for you

By Zach Long
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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

1. Constellation

Music Music venues North Center

Located in the former home of the Viaduct Theater, this nondescript building houses 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 performance spaces and a bar offering reasonably priced beer and cocktails. From local jazz groups to touring avant-garde performers, the venue is Chicago's destination for any music that's deemed "too weird" for the rock clubs.

2. The Green Mill

Bars Cocktail bars Uptown

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 and the music often goes as late as 2am (5am on Saturdays). Arrive early, grab a cocktail and settle in for a long evening.

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3. Andy's Jazz Club & Restaurant

Clubs River North

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 worth revisiting from time to time. It’s a comfortable, intimate space where you can drop by for a cocktail, or make an evening of it by ordering something from the restaurant's respectable menu. 

Hungry Brain
Photograph: Tate Gunnerson

4. Hungry Brain

Bars Dive bars North Center

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 regular performances from members of Chicago's thriving experimental jazz scene, such as Dave Rempis and Greg Ward.

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Elastic Arts
Photograph: Courtesy Elastic Arts

5. Elastic Arts

Music Jazz Logan Square

This not-for-profit, all-ages spot has quickly become one of the premier venues in the city for free jazz, electronic and other left-of-the-dial music. You'll usually find interesting art on the walls, cheap beer at the bar and something on the calendar to bring you back in the coming weeks. The crowd ranges from hipsters to older jazz fans to the curious and uninitiated, but there’s no intimidation factor—it’s always friendly.

Milk Maid at The Whistler
Photo: Jason Little

6. The Whistler

Bars Cocktail bars Logan Square

Delicious epicurean cocktails might be this 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 weekly Relax Attack Jazz Series is one of its main attractions, with cutting-edge swing and free improv on Tuesday nights.

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Pago Pago Shaved Ice
Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki

7. California Clipper

Bars Cocktail bars Humboldt Park

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 can also stop by for bingo and the Clipper Cabaret burlesque show each month.

Winter's Jazz Club
Photograph: Courtesy Winter's Jazz Club

8. Winter's Jazz Club

Music Music venues Streeterville

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.

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9. FitzGerald's

Clubs Oak Park

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 a lineup of local swing orchestras on Sundays. Each Wednesday, guest can head next door to attend one of the SideBar Sessions, which pairs acoustic jazz performances with classic cocktails.

10. Jazz Showcase

Music Music venues Printers Row

Long heralded as Chicago’s leading jazz venue, the venerable club is the oldest jazz spot in the city and has been forced to relocate more than once since its inception in 1947. Since moving to swank new digs in 2008, the Showcase has easily reestablished its reputation for bringing in top-shelf talent, including acts like the Bad Plus and Miguel Zenón. Stop by every Sunday at 4pm for a family-friendly jazz matinee, with free admission for kids 12 and under. 

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11. Davenport's

Clubs Wicker Park

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.

Room 43
Photograph: Courtesy of Room 43

12. Room 43

Things to do Event spaces Kenwood

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. Sit down at a table to hear two sets from local and touring jazz combos, including musicians like drummer Charles Heath and saxophonist Bernard Scavella.

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13. Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts

Things to do Schools and universities Woodlawn

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 artists like Marquis Hill, 
Christian McBride and Jazzmeia Horn.

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