Jazz bars evoke images of smoky cities, dangerously provocative tunes, and prohibited (illegal) alcohol. But in London, at face value this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Home to a legion of world class venues, including the legendary Ronnie Scott's, Vesper, and 606 Club, these bars are just out of the league of so many lovers of impromptu good music. The jazz is incredible of course, but many are eye-wateringly expensive, or require you to book months ahead. Perfect for a special occasion, but less so if you love jazz and fancy spontaneous music without breaking the bank.
For cheaper, more impromptu suggestions, look no further.
Cable Cafe, Oval
Cable Bar and Cafe serves flat whites by day and whisky by night. Run by the guys behind Scooter Cafe in Waterloo, there’s a pretty special jazz night, held every Tuesday from 8pm onwards. Swing bands, new jazz, and funk play in this cramped tiny cafe. Expect it to get crowded, fast. The music’s good and free, and the well-stocked bar has a great selection of reasonably priced drinks. Come early to get a seat, and order an Italian aperitif - their Negroni’s are stellar.
Cable Cafe Bar, 8 Brixton Road,020 8617 9629
Oliver’s Jazz Bar, Greenwich
This slightly hidden jazz bar in the heart of SE10 (right by the Spread Eagle pub) is well worth a visit to hear some toe-tapping tunes. Shows kick-off at 9pm, but on Sunday, there’s an early session starting at 6pm. In winter, the basement venue even has an open fire, so you can curl up with your friends and take in the musical vibes. Best of all, the staff are all super knowledgeable and interested in music, and everyone is enthusiastic about the acts. It’s all about the music here, and it’s a quirky and much loved destination for jazz aficionados.
Oliver's Jazz Bar, 9 Nevada Street, London, SE10 9JL. 02088583693.
Another subterranean jazz-cave, this one’s underneath a popular cocktail bar. Like the other venues in this list, it gets packed once the music starts. With their own house band (Kansas Smitty’s House Band, described as ‘a group of jazz-addicted 20-somethings’), the bar has a cult following.
The band is frequently invited to play larger venues like Ronnie Scott’s, but it’s best to see them here, sitting elbow to elbow with new friends, sipping juleps and letting the jazz take you to new places.
Kansas Smitty's Bar, 63-65 Broadway Market, E8 4PH
Nightjar, City Road
Although the 1920s-style speakeasy style can feel a little try-hard, it works here. The Nightjar has some of the best jazz and drinks in the city. Play your cards right, and you can end up having an inexpensive night of music here too. Voted the third best bar in the world, it also just happens to have some pretty excellent live jazz sets playing every night from 9pm.
For just a fiver, you can hear New Orleans blues and the sort of jazz that’ll make you leap up and dance. The only problem? The night gets booked up weeks in advance, so although not one for the spontaneous among you, it’s one of London’s best.
Nightjar, 129 City Road, EC1V 1JB, 020 7253 4101 (£5 entry).
Hideaway, Streatham High Street
A cafe by day and bar by night, Hideaway gets lots of awesome bands playing. The professional jazz bands aren’t cheap — although well worth it £15 each — but there’s plenty of free jazz and blues playing throughout the week.
What makes Hideaway stand out for the budget jazz enthusiast is the Monday night jams, where budding musicians can learn from the best. You’ll hear some great (non-professional) jazz for free at this cafe with a buzzing, warm, atmosphere. Drinks are inexpensive - the bar serves a selection of ales and wines. Expect blues, swing, and jazz — Hideaway covers a broad base.
Hideaway Jazz Cafe, 22 Streatham High Road, SW16 6EN
The Effra Hall Tavern, Brixton
On Thursday evenings for the last 15 years, the Effra Hall Tavern has hosted a free jazz night with a resident band. This is as far from stuffy as you can get, with a lively mixed local crowd and a menu with a heap of Caribbean offerings. Live music, from ska to blues, to swing, to southern throaty jazz, can be heard most nights of the week. Turn up, buy a pint, and watch some of the rawest and most unpretentious jazz in the capital at this Brixton backstreet boozer. If you’re only coming to support a friend, the footie’s always on too.
The Effra Hall Tavern, 38 Kellett Road, SW2
Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec, Kennington
From the outside, Brasserie Toulouse Lautrec looks like a pub. Inside, the immediate vibe is fancy French restaurant. But then you realise it’s an awesome wine bar and jazz venue, serving French and New World wines by the carafe or bottle and stonkingly good meat and cheese palettes from the bar.
Live music is on seven nights a week until late and many of the acts are free. There’s a comprehensive easy-to-book calendar online so you know exactly what act you’re signing up for.
Toulouse Lautrec, 140 Newington Butts, Kennington, SE11 4RN, 020 7582 6800
The Nag’s Head, Walthamstow
From 5.30pm every Sunday, make your way to E17 where you can settle down for a boozy afternoon to listen to some free jazz. House band The Stowaways will keep punters entertained throughout the evening. Great food, great vibes, and great music.
The Nags Head, 9 Orford Road, Walthamstow Village, E17 9LP