Friday, March 14, 2008

Feature: Jazz Club Guide

Last reviewed: 23/07/11 (Reduta reassessed) 

Many great questions have been asked by mankind. To be or not to be? Why am I here? Is there a God? Where is the best jazz club in Prague? Obviously the first three are easy to answer (Be if you can; You came here; Better say “yes” in case He’s listening), but the fourth one is more complex and taxing. However you no longer need to lose sleep: Prague Jazz has the answer for you…

AghaRTA Jazz Centrum is, for our money, still the finest jazz club in this city. Despite its central location, slapped down between the tourist hotspots of Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square, AghaRTA is definitely a music club rather than a sideshow for punters from cash-rich lands. That’s not to say that there aren’t tourists there, but they do tend to be tourists who want to dig the music rather than chatter inanely, clink glasses, whoop, holler, and fire flashguns into faces at blinding proximity. Indeed, those who yammer on during the music are sometimes stared down or gently rebuked by other audience members and, in one notable case, the pianist’s wife.

The entrance fee (250 Kč) is reasonable and the bar prices, while a bit dearer than a gritty pub, are cheap for the location. The club itself is underground but high ceilinged and stone walled; small enough to be intimate but big enough to get a good atmosphere going. It has a raised stage, semi-comfortable seating, and friendly waitresses who scoot around bringing booze to your table. They want paying upon delivery though, so make sure you have some cash handy. If you stand up during a good solo in order to fumble with your wallet someone might get angry. If I’m behind you, it’ll be me. They also have a neat little shop, so the money that you have saved on drinks can be spent on CDs and DVDs. Bargain!

If we had to pick just one jazz club in Prague to go to it would be AghaRTA. And if anyone can tell us how they got that grand piano down those stairs I would be really grateful.

Jazz Dock is a newer arrival on the Prague scene. Its ultra-modern and self-consciously hip building has a perfect location on the river, and the glass walls give a breathtaking evening view to go with the music. It is one of the cheapest clubs, with tickets rarely more than 250 Kč and a 20% discount (on entry and drinks) for regular punters. As well as local acts they are also attracting more and more international artists. The never-ending bar is also easy on the wallet even if the electric pinks and greens are a bit wearing on the eye.

So far Jazz Dock is on track to usurp AghaRTA Jazz Centrum as PJ’s favourite club, but then it goes a bit wrong. The very impressive bar runs all along one side of the club and as such we are treated to the sound of cocktails being mixed and drinks being prepared all evening. The bar-like atmosphere also means that there can be a high level of talking. Some nights it is fine, with the audience paying attention to the music. Some nights it is horrendous, with a constant level of noise that irritates serious music fans and serious performers alike. The concerts start at 10PM and carry on until 1AM: great for the late-night mood but a bugger to get back from if you don’t know your way around Prague’s night transport system. It also means that an early morning the following day is very, very hard work. They have started adding 7PM concerts to their schedule, but the bigger names still tend to have the late shift.

A good night at Jazz Dock can be very good but a bad night can be infuriating. It wouldn't be so hard to put a little notice on the drinks list: “We respectfully ask patrons to be quiet during performances.” They need to decide whether they are a music club or a hotel bar (minus the hotel). It is a good second option for those people who wish to talk at jazz clubs. A good first option is suicide.

U Malého Glena boasts on its leaflets that “you have never been so close to music” and this is pretty much the truth. The main room is smaller than some stages; a party in an inch of underground tunnel. If you get one of the front seats then watch out that you don’t get clobbered when the guitarist turns around. And don’t knock over the singer’s music stand with your feet. Sorry, Miriam. If you’re planning to drink a lot of beer (they serve delicious unpasteurised Bernard at a reasonable price) then get one of the aisle seats rather than one at the sides – to get in and out of those everyone else has to move their table out of the way. And don’t open the toilet door too quickly… you may knock someone over mid-contemplation. This is little Glen’s after all!

UMG is tiny but it is also a lot of fun. They have some regular acts, the most famous of which is Stan the Man with his Bohemian Blues Band: high volume and high thrill Monday night entertainment. You will usually need to reserve your seats in advance, especially for Stan, who is an institution on the Prague club scene with his rough growls and fearsome licks. There is a jam session every Sunday, giving people a chance to take to the stage (well… the carpet), but unless you’re damn good then don’t even contemplate it.

The only problem with UMG, and for us it is a big problem, is that it seems to attract some of the noisiest (and coincidentally, American) audiences in Prague. Because of its small size there really isn’t anywhere you can go to talk without appearing on the aural radar. Even at the bar you are still within earshot. During acoustic jazz it can be maddening, and during louder electrified blues sessions occasionally comical… great musical crescendo dies away… tosser voice at bar is bragging about how much it earns or how far it travels. The gold-diggers go grease their shovels. The sublime and the ridiculous.

UMG is cheap and cheerful, and the staff friendly and helpful. You are advised to go but please, during the sets, just shut the f*** up.

Reduta found fame as the venue where President Bill Clinton blew his sax [insert your own Monica jokes here] along with Havel, and the pictures hanging everywhere don’t let you forget it. It is worth a visit to see the site of such an unusual and historic event. East meets West, and jams… the nostalgia just writes itself. Reduta also has an excellent CD shop with an extensive stock of Czech and international music for sale.

When our guide was first written this is where the good stuff stopped. The bar prices were extortionate and the monthly programme one of the least interesting available. There have been changes however, and for the better. It is now 50 Kč for a Pilsner Urquell (0.5l):  a bit pricey but not far above the going rate in a jazz club, and considerably less than it once was. Tickets are under 300 Kč which is also pretty standard. Most importantly the music schedule has improved, and while there are still some fillers there are also a lot of top quality performers. The compulsory leaving of coats (for a small charge) is still annoying and I do wish they wouldn't do it. A cheap trick. The crowds still feel very touristy, but often they are listening crowds who do foul over the music with inane chatter.

Previously we described Reduta as a place that everyone should go to once. At the moment it's actually pretty good.

Ungelt currently gets our vote for being the most improved club in the city. Four years ago it was an unashamed tourist trap, resorting to high ticket prices and some cheap tricks to get you in there. Things are better now. The signs offering “free jazz” that tempted people in off the street before dumping them in a bar with no view of the stage, with the option of course of buying a ticket for the main room at a high price, are thankfully gone. The prices have come down, there is a loyalty card scheme, and it is not a bad place to spend the evening as long as you get a seat on the floor by the stage. The best thing about Ungelt is the regular appearance of the Luboš Andršt Blues Band on the programme. It has its faults, but whereas previously we advised you to stay away, now we don't.

Jazz Republic is a newly opened club and the most conveniently positioned venue for users of Prague's public transport system: it is in the Můstek Metro station. Visitors with an eye for detail and a good memory will recognise many of the wall decorations, and even the tables and chairs, as being from the defunct Charles Bridge Jazz Club. It is a very different space though, and actually feels too large rather than the usual problem of feeling too small. It is early days for Jazz Republic, and again it will have to decide what it is going to be: a listening club with a bar or a drinking club with a stage. The space and the acoustics are conducive to the latter, and rather worryingly the more expensive "VIP' tables are not positioned near the stage, but we will see...

There are some other venues in the city, such as Jazz Time, that we have yet to visit. Now Jazz Time has got round to listing its programme of concerts on its website we will be dropping in shortly and reporting back.

For further details about all these clubs, including schedules, addresses and booking information, please follow the links in the "links" section.

If you have visited any of these music clubs and have any comments to make, either about the clubs themselves or about how the experience matched up with our description, please leave a comment or contact us directly.

1 comment:

Ricardo Ribeiro said...

Thanks for the great story.Plenty of information and humour! Great!