Culture + Style

3 Small New York City Music Venues with a Big History

With world-famous venues like Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall, New York City has seen some pivotal moments in music history, from Led Zeppelin’s legendary 1973 three-night run to Paul McCartney’s 2001 star-studded benefit concert for 9/11 victims.

But you might be surprised to learn that many of the city’s lesser-known dives, underground venues and hidden watering holes deserve have hosted some pretty big moments, too.

Here we pay tribute to three worthy of a visit, regardless of who’s on stage.

Cafe Wha?

Tucked inside the basement of 115 MacDougal Street is an unassuming dive bar that just so happens to have hosted rock royalty like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Jimi Hendrix (who was recruited here). Opened in 1959, the venue has grown significantly from its Beat Generation roots, but still remains a place where anything goes.

There’s a fully stocked menu with items like fish tacos, but, let’s be honest, you’re here for the music. Since 1987, the venue’s in-house cover band has been known for having patrons line up around the block.

Those who are lucky enough to make it inside get to squeeze out their best dance moves in the narrow aisles, and sometimes witness celebrity guest performers join the band on stage.

Nuyorican’s Poet Cafe

live music in nyc
You’ll hear more than music at this venue. (Photo: Getty Images)

Conceived out of the Nuyorican art movement of the early 1970s, this East Village institution originated in the living room of Puerto Rican poet and writer Miguel Algarín as a gathering space for underrepresented artists of color.

In a world where mainstream art excluded those who did not fit into the Western tradition, this was a unique haven. Since its inception, the cafe has moved, but continues to be an intimate space for artists of all kinds.

Poetry slams, open mics, art shows and music performances ranging from Latin jazz to punk rock are all regular offering.

Bill’s Place

While many of the city’s jazz clubs have turned into swanky cocktail affairs, Bill’s Placehas remained true to its roots. It’s located in the basement of 148 West 133rd Street, aka “Swing Street,” a one-time strip of lively speakeasies and cabarets that existed during the Prohibition Era.

Bill’s Place was part of the fun even back then, hosting legends like Billie Holiday and Willie “the Lion” Smith during the early days of their careers. Now, saxophone player and club owner Bill Saxton invites visitors to enjoy the B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Beverage) policy and tap away to an hour and a half of some of the greatest live jazz the city has to offer.