Nighttown: Cleveland’s own temple to jazz

Patrick Clarke, Contributing Reporter

It’s the weekend. Or a weekday. You’re bored. Or you’re tired. Whatever entertainment Case Western Reserve University has to offer, it isn’t working. So you try to amuse yourself with a bit of visual escape—Netflix being the preferred method, of course. You decide to move out of the typical genres: the Parks and Recreations, the House(s) of Cards, the Breaking Bads, whatever it is kids amuse themselves with these days. You need something more, something that harkens back to a grander state of being. Something classy, yet effortlessly so.

Feeling adventurous, film noir is what you settle on. The opening credits roll. Suddenly, the scenes of the movie start blurring into reality. Suddenly, your life inherits a narrator. The musical prelude sends your mind to a dreamy existence, one devoid of pop culture or the rigors of academia. You’re so thoroughly absorbed in the jazz-induced ecstasy that your mind neglects to consider the generous bar tab you’ve just accrued. Welcome, my friend. Welcome to the world of Nighttown.

Nighttown probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when thinking of college-friendly venues in terms of atmosphere or price. The crowd is most definitely well past the university age, mostly professionals seeking to expand their night with a bit of culture. But the sophistication here isn’t limited to the older folks. If you love music or are looking for a break from the younger scene, Nighttown’s got you covered. It’s a short walk from the dorms at the top of hill, so give it a try. I swear, you won’t be disappointed.

You won’t find a lot of room to maneuver around the bar when you first enter. The tight quarters encourage the patrons to mingle, to discuss the events of the day or the performer on stage. This isn’t a place you show up at to sit by yourself. You’re here for the people, for the entertainment of others’ company and, of course, to see a top-notch show.

During my visit, I had the privilege of listening to some of the most fantastic artists I’ve ever heard. Grammy-nominated singer Dionne Farris, with whom I carried on a fascinating conversation after the show, provided the emotional vocals for Grammy-nominated musician Russell Gunn and his band, consisting of Gunn on trumpet, along with a bassist and a drummer. The acoustics here did not disappoint. Every note, every beat, every crying wail cleanly pulsates throughout the room, reaching your ears in an extraordinarily crisp fashion. My own tastes in music never delved much into the complex sphere of jazz, but the music I heard that night made a convert out of me. The coordination, even during the improvisational sections, was remarkable and can be appreciated regardless of your musical appetite. Bona fide virtuosos—every one of them.

The décor in the main room oozes with elegance but never to the point of being excessive or gaudy. It’s a warm, refined ambience, the sort of space you imagine only exists on the set of a Hollywood movie. You’re made to feel welcome here, and the staff goes to great pains to ensure that feeling for the entirety of the night, always prompt and never curt. The menu selections are diverse and sumptuous—served quickly to ensure that your stomach’s rumbling never interferes with the music. If you can’t make it to a show but want to stop by to see what all the fuss is about, Nighttown’s house piano player provides soothing tunes to help wind your night down or the perfect melodic backdrop for a friendly conversation, playing a variety of well-known songs with a distinctly jazzy flair.

Nighttown isn’t just a local restaurant, a bar or a club—it’s a cultural institution, providing an incredible service to the community by ensuring that talented artists, such as Farris and Gunn, always have a home in Cleveland. It keeps the spirit of jazz alive, reminding us that music doesn’t just have to be a catchy chorus or riff played mind-numbingly loud for two weeks until the next big hit. No, jazz offers a more nuanced approach to music, a sonic exploration of the human condition itself—fear, dread and anger seamlessly fused with joy, sorrow and hope, each recognizable but incapable of being removed from the others. What it offers is existential contemplation by way of emotional investigation. So stop by, stay a while. Take a plunge and expand your horizons. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself. Either way, you’ll be hanging out at the classiest joint in town.