Alexander Tzschentke profiles the city’s best jazz joints…
Berlin’s role as Germany’s jazz capital has been pushed somewhat under the radar in the last couple of decades, thanks to the rise of trendier music genres like indie-rock, hip hop and electronic music.
But the jazz scene here is as colourful and diverse as the city itself, with local musicians – established acts as well as young, creative newbies – often incorporating these newer music forms with the tradition of improvised music from East and West Germany. The city offers a range of large jazz ensembles that happily experiment with contemporary classical music, brass bands working at the edges of pop and rock, and acoustic formations with international backgrounds and influences.
This being Berlin, the vicissitudes of political change have left their mark all over town; famous venues like the Titania Palace in the western sector or the jazz club Melodie in East Berlin are long disappeared. But enough venues remain to form the soul of the city’s contemporary scene, offering their stages as both concert halls and musical labs.
While the current mainstream venues are well-known to many, the underground jazz scene is characterised by its fleeting venues and erratic schedules. Operating for anything from a single night to a couple of years, it’s impossible to keep track of them all. furthermore, many venues lack official websites, operating only through word of mouth or Facebook invitations, and are purposefully hidden in basements, through backyards or behind unmarked residential front doors.
Below is a mix of big-hitters and underground joints that were operating at the time of writing…
The Big Hitters
This Charlottenburg venue rightly claims its place as the longest-running and most famous jazz club in town. Its roots go back to the ’20s, but its most glorious days date from the 50s-70s – when West Berlin was a Mecca for the world’s free improvised music scene – hosting major stars like Chet Baker and Dizzy Gillespie when they blew through on tour.
The number of such acts has declined since the 90s, but the venue still offers a solid variety of music styles spanning funk, soul, blues, Latin and rock. The venue also shares a historic space with the Vagantenbühne and the Delphi movie theatre right next door to the Theater des Westens, the latter the German equivalent of Broadway with regular musicals and operettas.
Quasimodo, Kantstraße 12 a, 10623 Berlin, T: 030 318 045 60
The intimate A Trane opened its doors inside a former Charlottenburg grocery store in 1992, and its 12-metre stage rightly has a reputation for hosting some of the best jazz music from Germany and all over the world.
The most remarkable thing about A Trane are the acoustics: this is a venue designed for music lovers and for music production, and its owners have reconstructed the former store like a recording studio. Well known for hosting one of the most famous jam sessions in town, it’s also possible to witness new local talents as well as international players at the late night Saturday night sessions – an important event for many jazz musicians – amateurs and professionals, local and international – to exchange their styles and cards, and to play and improvise together. Due to its limited space, it is advisable to reserve a table in advance.
A Trane, Pestalozzistraße 105, 10625 Berlin, 030 3132550
Located near the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station in Mitte, this tiny, dimly-lit “Jazzkeller”, set in the basement of a 19th century lightbulb factory, used to be wrapped in a permanent fog of cigarette smoke. The smoke has now gone, but much of the atmosphere remains, including the huge traditional beer glasses.
The venue’s broad hall and well-stocked bar frame a sprawling stage, offering a perfect fit for the big bands and large ensembles who pass through – including the Composers Orchestra Berlin, a regular fixture that plays the work of a diverse group of musician-composers.
Beyond their erudite jazz program, the Kunstfabrik Schlot is also renowned for hosting local stand-up comedians and cabaret starlets. Buy tickets at the door or sign up online in advance for a discount.
Kunstfabrik Schlot, Invalidenstrasse 117, 10115 Berlin, 030 448 21 60
A glance through the broad windows that front Mitte’s b-flat will literally give you a glimpse behind the scenes of the city’s jazz scene. Founded by two musicians (Jannis and Thanassis Zotos) and the actor Andre Hennecke in 1995, the dedicated program here features both local and international (but European-focused) artistes.
Its Wednesday nights are famous for staging one of the best jam sessions in town; hosted by Canadian bass player Robin Draganic, the session’s called “Robin’s Nest” and offers a fundamental insight into Berlin’s local jazz set.
b-flat, Rosenthaler Straße 13, 10119 Berlin, 030 2833123
Zig Zag Jazz Club
As you walk up to the Zig Zag Jazz Club you’ll be able to glance through the large floor-to-ceiling windows to get a taster of the ambiance that awaits you inside. Low lighting and a miss-match of furniture give off the standard Berlin café vibe, but the large grand piano and drum kit on the slightly raised stage area ramp up the refinement.
The club hosts concerts six nights a week and hosts some of the finest national and international acts around, such as Kurt Rosenwinkel and Uwe Kropinski. The club doesn’t charge entry on the door as it manages to finance itself and its acts on donations from visitors—a pricing model that helps to attract young and old through its doors.
Zig Zag Jazz Club, Hauptstraße 89, 12159 Berlin; 030 9404 9147
Cafe Tasso is located in one of the Stalinistic buildings at Frankfurter Tor. It operates as part of a project whose main purpose is to integrate handicapped people into society. By day it’s a coffee place and a second hand book shop, but after closing time the chairs, tables, and piano migrate to the corners and Tasso hosts live jazz and other acoustic music as well as readings and plays.
Cafe Tasso, Frankfurter Allee 11, 10247 Berlin, 030 48624708
At the Neukölln-based Mainzelrmenschen, an association of artists has transformed a sprawling living room into a venue for concerts and movie nights with live improvised film scoring where you can watch a 20s silent movie come to life with an improvised soundtrack – and get served drinks from the host’s own refrigerator. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a freshly baked pretzel or homemade soup.
The cosy and convivial atmosphere makes you feel like a welcomed and appreciated houseguest, or an old friend stopping in for an evening. Concerts are scheduled for between 8-10pm – please respect their neighbours on the way out, exiting the apartment silently as you make your way through the courtyard to reach the street and the neighbourhood bars that make for a perfect after-show tipple…
Mainzelmenschen, Mainzer Strasse 39, 12053 Berlin
Most jazz venues have slowly disappeared from Prenzlauer Berg over the years, due to increasing rents and complaints about the noise by neighbours. But this little cafe, close to Mauerpark, is one of the few places left that still offers a stage for jazz musicians.
Cafe Niesen has supplied the area with Sunday evening performances (twice per month) for around two years. Notably, it is also home to a range of tasty snacks, an affordable latte, and (despite its child-friendly afternoon vibe) an adult-only area.
Schwedter Straße 78, 10437 Berlin
Originally the collective behind Jazzy Berlin could be found jamming in KaterHolzig, but since the club’s demise they’ve taken up a weekly residency at Friedrichshain’s Neue Heimat. The weekly Jam Jazzy Sessions take place on Fridays from 10pm and entrance is a very reasonable €4. The night is well suited to those wanting to dip their toes into the city’s jazz scene; it’s also a welcoming atmosphere for all jazz performers. Jazzy Berlin also hold a popular Jazz Brunch on Sundays.
For those who would prefer to listen from home, or check out some specific artists ahead of time, I’ve created a Spotify introduction to recent releases from the last two years of the Berlin’s jazz scene. You can check it out here.