You could be forgiven for thinking that a typical night out in Athens involves, more or less, a dive into the delectable local cuisine, copious wine consumption, and impromptu merriment. This, after all, has been part of the benign stereotype for a while, one that is periodically rekindled as is the case with every cultural stereotype on this planet. Similarly, the usual soundtrack to videos of ancient temples, whitened by time and overlooking the blue black sea has also done its bit to clinch a certain image of Greece as the cradle of all things bouzouki. This is a fine reputation to have and one that comes with a venerable history, but it is not the whole story.
Athens, for instance, is just one of the cities in Greece that has been undergoing a cultural renascence, partly as a remedial response to a crippling crisis, but also as a way of reprocessing these experiences into something creative. Within this cultural and artistic commotion, which over the past year has seen the opening of the eagerly-awaited Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center and the much-discussed Documenta 14, it is easy to miss the city’s shimmering jazz scene and the venues that showcase it.
Yet, a steady trickle of committed musicians over the years has now become a community of top-notch jazz players, diehard enthusiasts and stylish venues that cover a gamut from straight up jazz, jazz-funk, fusion, nu-jazz, ethnic jazz, blues, R&B, and soul – not to mention a steamy mix of live acts in rock, pop, folk and classical. By breathing life into the Greek jazz scene these venues have allowed both veteran and newbie audiences firsthand access to one of the most diverse and addictive musical genres.
Most of the city’s venues fit snugly in the evening-only dive bar category but there is also a fair sprinkling of café bars for midday breaks or after work relaxation.
Late summer is usually a time of transition as some of the urban dives shut or move to their island annexes, so it’s worth consulting the respective venue and band Facebook pages before setting out. However, a mid-August pause aside, there is no shortage of open air events throughout spring, summer and autumn in Athens, semi-impromptu musical get-togethers in pedestrian alleys, squares or at the city’s magical National Gardens. Not to mention the music festivals and gigs all around Greece that are becoming almost too many to count.
Here’s a taste of the scene over the past months through a selection of the city’s finest venues and an introduction to some of the names in Greek jazz worth keeping an ear out for, now, and in the years to come.
Open air venues
These are the seasonal choice during the Greek summers, which often stretch well into autumn, though many open air venues also have indoor facilities.
Ever since its official inauguration earlier in the year, the arrestingly designed Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center has hosted countless music and music-related events. In addition to being the new home of the National Library of Greece and the Greek National Opera, the center boasts a generous park that is rich with horticultural and peripatetic possibilities. Next to the sea and across a sprinkling of Saronic Gulf isles, the SNFCC holds its Summer Nostos Festivals, among countless other musical events throughout the year. The last Nostos featured appearances by acclaimed Greek classical violinist Leonidas Kavakos, Yo La Tengo and the Black Art Jazz Collective. Previous acts include the Takis Paterelis Quartet and George Kontrafouris’ inspired Baby Trio, among others.
The Technopolis of the City of Athens is a cultural center, museum and exhibition space rolled into one at a stunning old gasworks in the warehouse-chic neighbourhood of Gazi. It is a stone’s throw from the Benaki Museum annex on nearby Pireos Street and a Metro hop from the city center. For over a decade, Technopolis has hosted high-profile jazz performances including, recently, its 17th International Jazz Festival. The lineup was packed with excitement, including a gig by the prodigiously talented Kamasi Washington, Mariza Rizou, and Craig Bailey with the dazzling Athens Big Band.
Launched in 1955, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival is regarded as a bastion of the Greek festival circuit and one of the most eagerly-awaited summer arts events to turn the spotlight on local and international talent. The festival spans several venues and locations, including the ancient theatres of Epidaurus and Herod Atticus. As such it is also a golden opportunity to roam far and wide in search of cultural landmarks and lesser-known urban corners. Some of the jazz acts that stood out over the past summer were the Next Step Quintet, the George Kontrafouris Trio, the Charis Lambrakis Quartet, the Ziad Rajab Trio, Adedeji Adetayo, Haig Yazdjian Quartet, and the ARTéfacts Ensemble.
The Athens Concert Hall on the sloping foot of Lycabettus hill, a little island of wilderness that juts up from the urban sprawl, is another cornerstone of all things musical. In summer the music at the Megaron Mousikis (as it is known locally) continues under the stars at its refreshingly cool garden, a smartly designed urban oasis that is open daily and doubles as a music venue in the evenings. Recent live performances that stood out but also names to keep in mind are Idra Kayne, the After 8 Jazz Sextet, and the Petros Klambanis Group.
Indoor and semi-indoor venues
Afrikana Jazz Club, an upbeat and stylish venue in a low-rise industrial section of Gazi, a neighbourhood that has also become a staple of Greek wining, dining and live music, is a hotbed of established and rising talent. Join the fun and rub shoulders with musicians checking out the latest acts, flocking in for a jam session, or there for a quick post-gig nightcap. Recent acts include the Cube sextet, Crazy People Music, Datfunk, Svobotnik, and Tsakelectric.
Faust is a bar-theatre-arts venue located right in the middle of the effervescent neighbourhood surrounding Agia Eirini square in downtown Athens. This baroque meets New Orleans space, complete with sumptuous chandeliers, is among the city’s most popular venues and already has an impressive backlog of gigs by some of the big names of the local jazz scene, including Human Touch and the Andreas Polyzogopoulos Quartet among many others.
Gazarte is a cultural hub and multi-stage industrial chic venue in Gazi. It is decked out in the old-school aesthetic of the London and New York music clubs and boasts a spectacular cityscape from its top floor bars. Over the years Gazarte has become synonymous with high-end line-ups and jazz diehards. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Christian McBride, the Kronos Quartet, Manu Dibango, Al Di Meola, John Schofield, Kenny Garrett, and Imany have all walked through its doors. Recent acts include Dimitri Vassilakis and Craig Bailey.
Kerameio, a former ceramics workshop-turned-bar on the border of the Kerameikos and Metaxourgheio neighbourhoods, is a relaxed, casual and friendly venue that stretches out lengthwise along two rooms: a bustling main bar area and a backroom for quieter moments. A cozy checkered tile backyard comes as an extra bonus during the sizzling summer months. The Dimitris Sevdalis Trio, Liquid Streets, the Leonidas Sarantopoulos Quartet, the George Vouros Sextet are among the talent that has played there.
The Zoo is a spacious saloon-style music pub in the leafy semi-suburbia of Chalandri, one of the new ‘it’ neighbourhoods 20 minutes by car from the city center. Not exactly a newcomer in the live music circuit, it recently picked up steam through a series of back-to-back gigs with top-notch jazz musicians and jazz-oriented events such as its JazZoo Concert Series. Recent acts include Adedeji Adetayo, Yiotis Samaras/Vassilis Xenopoulos Quartet, and the Dimitris Papadopoulos Quintet.
Centrally-located Jazz Point, by now well-known on the map of jazz venues, is ensconced in an arcade on one of the city’s central avenues, very near Kolonaki neighbourhood, a must for shopping and anyone versed in the art of the outrageously extended coffee break. Jazz Point is a cozy and compact split-level sit-down bar that is also known to host book readings set to the appropriate jazz soundtrack. Recent acts include the Yiannis Kassetas Trio, the Giannis Papanastasiou Trio, the Vibes Quartet, Mode Plagal, Pyros Aithir, the Afrodyssey Orchestra, and Iasis & Friends.
Speakeasy is a fashionably secretive and classy cocktail bar in a basement, accessible by ringing the (right) doorbell of an otherwise perfectly innocent apartment entrance in a maze of streets just below Syntagma square. A relatively recent entry in the circuit of downtown jazz venues, the bar’s recent band line-up included the Takis Barberis Group, Los Tre + Thodoris Rellos, and the Psychedelic Baby Trio.
The Half note Jazz Club is the city’s legendary jazz venue located at a particularly serene section in the artsy and hilly neighbourhood of Mets, a 15-minute walk from the city center alongside some of its finest ancient monuments. After more than three decades of first-class Greek and foreign jazz line-ups, the Half Note has built a solid reputation as an old-timer in the pantheon of jazz venues. Its roster includes Liebman, Swallow, Nussbaum-We Three, the Trio of Liberty, the Louis Hayes Quartet featuring Jeremy Pelt, not counting huge names over the years such as Dexter Gordon, Archie Shepp, and Dr Lonnie Smith among countless others.
To Spiti Art Bar is one of the city’s coziest and comes with an enticing courtyard for catching the evening breeze during the summer. It has a penchant for flamenco and gypsy jazz, but there is no shortage of gigs across other genres, including jazz and the occasional music-related exhibition or book presentation. The Thodoris Kotsifas Trio, the Valentinos Doulias Quartet, the George Kontrafouris Jazz Organ Trio and Roberto Tarenzi, the Giorgos Georgiadis Trio, are some of the groups and line-ups that have played there.
To Treno sto Rouf is a converted railway carriage that is a restaurant, bar, theatre and music venue. There is a Hercule Poirot aura in the intimate old-school aesthetic of the carriage and a more contemporary feel to the elegant platform dining area of neatly arranged tables under the low-rise expansive sky. The Treno is catching up with the town’s musical scene and has already the Constantine Cheimarios Quartet, the Light Vibrations Project and the Nikos Chatzitsakos Quartet among others on its gig list.
Zitto, is a relaxed and compact bistro-bar that is stylish in its no-frills approach and décor. It is located at a backstreet in the heart of the city in Exarchia, a neighbourhood that seldom sleeps and one of the first to boast a vibrant music scene across all genres. Manos Saridakis, the Panas Athanatos Trio, the Sera Bellos Vocal Quartet, the Evdaimon Jazz Trio are some of the acts that have played at Zitto.
Centrally located and less than a five-minute walk from Syntagma Square, the Numismatic Museum Café has become a strong player in the jazz scene over the past few years. The café is located in the garden behind the museum, itself one of the city’s architectural gems. Far from the madding crowd, it is the perfect place to enjoy some quality time listening to jazz. Recent acts include Anamateur & Pros presenting Monique, the Think Sax Society, the Jazz Junior Band LJJO Hessen, the Nana Trevor Jazz Trio, Angelos Gavriil and Giorgos Constantinou.
The Onassis Cultural Centre boasts three vast stages, a restaurant and bar dedicated, since 2010, to showcasing Greek artists and international projects across the arts, letters and sciences. Among the many events throughout the year, the center holds its Panoramas of Greek Jazz, recently with the George Kostopoulos Sextet, the Groove Elation Project and Leoforio/Andreas Papagiannakopoulos. It also brought the exceptional Kamasi Washington, one of the most intriguing sax players to come out of the US in recent years, to Greece.
Also worth keeping an ear out for is the Athina Live at the Yiorgos Fakanas Art Music School in Faliron near Piraeus and the Athenaeum arts center in the quaint and architecturally pristine neighbourhood of Thission. The Christos Rafalides Quartet, Fenia Papadodima & Amorgo quintet, the SUB trio, the Manos Loutas Trio, the Vasilis Xenopoulos Quartet, Takis Barberis are some of the names that at one point or another have played at Athenaeum. The list of names at Athina Live is equally impressive and, besides the Yiorgos Fakanas Group includes seminars and gigs by some of the biggest names in the international jazz scene including Pat Martino, Victor Wooten, Horacio Hernandez, and Anthony Jackson.
The music is picking up again as most venues are almost in full swing ahead of an exciting winter. Nearly all of the bands and line-ups play at the venues on an almost rotating basis, which means that sooner or later you can catch them at any of the above spots or during improvised moments around town. Needless to say, there is more to come.