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Originally published Saturday, July 16, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Take the A train to Brooklyn jazz clubs

When Duke Ellington instructed Billy Strayhorn to "take the A train" to find him in Harlem, the band leader had no idea Billy would immortalize...

Seattle Times jazz critic

If You Go


Getting there

If you prefer using public transportation and are staying in Brooklyn, from JFK airport take the Airtrain to Howard Beach, then jump on the A train, which goes to downtown Brooklyn (Jay Street).

If you arrive at LaGuardia airport, getting to Brooklyn via public transportation is best accomplished via Manhattan — #60 Metro bus to the Upper West Side, then transfer to the subway.

Where to stay

There are some nice — and convenient — hotels in Brooklyn that are substantially cheaper than similar lodging in Manhattan.

The Nu Hotel: You might walk right past The Nu Hotel thinking it was a condo, so nondescript is the outside of this boutique hotel in the retail area on the edge of the Brooklyn downtown core. But inside, the rooms are sleek, bright, modern and well-appointed with polished steel fixtures and designer white walls. Fitness room, Wi-Fi, continental breakfast. 85 Smith St.; 718-852-8585 or; $200-$300.

Hotel Le Bleu: Posh, free-standing Hotel Le Bleu offers views of Manhattan from its west rooms, which feature bedsteads with blue backlighting, enormous glass shower stalls and 42-inch flat-screen TVs. Right on the edge of Park Slope, Le Bleu is closer to the clubs than the Nu Hotel, but also just inside an industrial neighborhood (Gowanus — you can see the notoriously polluted canal from the west rooms, too) so the neighborhood's not much to look at. Locals, however, say Fourth Avenue, the main drag, is on the upswing, so who knows what things will look like in the future. 370 Fourth Ave.; 718-625-1500 or; $200-$300.

Super 8 Brooklyn: A super bargain located where Carroll Gardens meets Park Slope, this place is what you might expect to find along the highway in Middle America, not in New York City. Bare-bones, but clean, comfortable, efficient, friendly and the complimentary breakfast even includes waffles. 263 Third Ave.; 718-534-0451, $119-$153.

Brooklyn Clubs

Barbès: 376 Ninth St., 347-422-0248,; Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.- 2 a.m., Friday 5 p.m.-4 a.m., Sunday 2 p.m.-2 a.m.; $10 donation. Subway: F, G, Seventh Ave./Ninth St. stop.

The Tea Lounge: 837 Union St., 718-789-2762,; Monday-Thursday 7 a.m.-midnight, Friday 7 a.m.-1 a.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-1 a.m., Sunday 8 a.m.-midnight; no cover. Subway: 2, 3 Grand Army Plaza stop.

Zebulon: 258 Wythe Ave., 718-218-6934;; Sunday-Thursday 4 p.m.-3 a.m., Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m.-4 a.m.; donations. Subway: L, Bedford Ave. stop.

Sycamore: 1118 Cortelyou Road, 347-240-5850,; Monday-Thursday 4 p.m.-2 a.m.; Friday 3 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday noon-2 a.m.; $10. Subway: Q, Cortelyou Road.

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When Duke Ellington instructed Billy Strayhorn to "take the A train" to find him in Harlem, the band leader had no idea Billy would immortalize the phrase in a swing-era hit.

Of course, that was back in the late 1930s, when Harlem was the hub of the jazz world.

If Duke were giving Billy directions today, he might still tell him to take the A train — but to get off in Brooklyn.

Over the past 10 years, a robust, homegrown jazz scene has developed in the humble borough across the East River from Manhattan. If you're a jazz-lover or simply curious about the cultural cutting edge, check out the clubs there next time you visit the Big Apple. They're a heck of a lot cheaper than Manhattan spots such as the Blue Note or Birdland, which can set you back $50-$60, and the music is often the most innovative in the city.

Brooklyn clubs Barbès, the Tea Lounge, Zebulon and Sycamore also are located in three of the hippest neighborhoods in New York — in Park Slope, Williamsburg and Ditmas Park — areas colonized by artists and young professionals driven out of Manhattan by high rents. The clubs are all easy to get to by subway and there's a homey, unpretentious, community feel to them, since many have sprung up in neighborhoods where musicians live.

Jazz has always thrived in Brooklyn, although official histories have tended to overlook it. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, droves of musicians began to migrate to Park Slope, among them a whole generation of Seattle transplants including guitarist Brad Shepik and others.

Park Slope was a sketchy neighborhood back then, but today, along with nearby Carroll Gardens, it is a gourmet mecca, with award-winning restaurants such as The Grocery and Al Di La, and home to Barbès and the Tea Lounge.

Named by its French owner, Olivier Conan, after a colorful Parisian neighborhood, Barbès is a narrow, cozy (and often crowded) bar where you can order pastis or choose from a fine selection of single-malt scotches. In back is a tiny, flat-floor performance space that seats about 25. Its rows of hard chairs are nothing to write home about, but the musicians who play there are. One night when up-and-coming violinist and Bill Frisell side player Jenny Scheinman was playing a regular gig, popular jazz vocalist Madeleine Peyroux showed up with her guitar and sang her heart out. The acoustic warmth and intimate crowd — all mutual friends on the scene — made it an unforgettable night.

Another veteran spot is the Tea Lounge, a vast tea (and coffee) house across the street from the Park Slope Food Coop, where in the afternoon you're likely to see painters, poets or pianists pushing strollers and toting reusable canvas grocery bags. Latte-sippers slouch on couches and pore over their laptops in the Tea Lounge — or belly up to the bar — as a phalanx of leaf-shaped fans on the stage-right wall slowly flap to keep the air circulating.

Tea Lounge hosts young and creative leaders such as David White or Michael Webster, often trying out new works for the first time with some of the best players in the city. On a recent night, Webster squeezed his violin- and cello-reinforced big band, Leading Lines, into the performing nook at the back and delivered a set of compellingly composed new work.

Williamsburg and

Ditmas Park

Park Slope is a residential neighborhood with tree-lined streets and brownstones, worth a stroll. Farther north lies industrial Williamsburg, discovered by loft-seeking artists when Soho rents skyrocketed. Today its lively main drag, Sixth Street, boasts fine restaurants, clubs, Internet cafes and that icon of New York urbanity — the late-night corner grocery store with a flower stand.

Tucked into one of its old industrial streets is Zebulon, a hipster shrine to jazz and other avant-gardes. With LP record jackets of Frank Zappa and John Coltrane lined above the bar and globe light fixtures bathing young patrons in muted gold light, Zebulon offers edgy music from free-improvised jazz to trip hop. Former Seattle resident and bassist Michael Bisio can be found performing from time to time.

The newest neighborhood to be discovered by young artists is Ditmas Park, a residential area on the way out to Coney Island, with huge Victorian houses somewhat the worse for wear. Ditmas Park's main stem, Cortelyou Road, has begun to sprout pleasant shops, restaurants and bars. Among the latter is Sycamore, a sleek watering hole with horizontal wood slats for décor and a lovely back deck, open in summer. Sycamore sponsors an annual beer festival and offers a great selection of brews you can purchase by glass or growler.

Downstairs is a tiny space with several rows of low benches and a small stage. This past May, a group called the Brooklyn Jazz Underground presented "A Portrait of Brooklyn," a round of smart original works dedicated to the spirit of various neighborhoods in the borough.

If you're getting the idea that local pride is part of the deal, you're right. Brooklyn jazz players are proud of their scene and happy to show it off. If you drop by one of their haunts, they'll probably welcome you warmly — and play some great music that won't bust your budget.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or

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