The premise of New York Music Daily’s annual choice for best Manhattan and Brooklyn venue dovetails with the ultimate mission here: to spread the word about music that deserves a wider audience. Trouble is, in the years since 2007 when the old Lakeside Lounge won the award for Best Manhattan Venue (at a predecessor blog), it’s been a real stretch to come up with a different pick every year. The list of contenders which have closed since then eclipses the dwindling number that might conceivably be called the best in the borough today.
That explains why, in the past three years, the Best Manhattan Venue award has gone to a museum, the free concert and events space at Manhattan’s flagship cultural institution, and a public park with frequent live music during the warmer months. Of all the places that have earned the award over the past dozen years, five have closed, one moved to Brooklyn, and another has pretty much gotten out of the music business. Beyond that, it’s slim pickings. And it would be a waste of time, old news, to flag a famous venue like one of the big Lincoln Center halls, or the Apollo, which rarely has concerts anymore anyway.
So what’s left? Most all of the best jazz spots have priced themselves out of the equation: it would be ridiculous to call a club the borough’s best venue if the people who live here can’t afford it. That’s even more of a problem at the classical venues. And the ones that aren’t obscenely expensive usually have sonic issues.
Meanwhile, the number of rock joints which might possibly deserve consideration is down to a grand total of three. Of those, Bowery Electric has erratic sound, hit-and-miss booking and the nerve to charge a cover for their second room, a tiny upstairs rehearsal closet that only has space to squeeze in the band along with (maybe) two other people. Shrine, which ended up winning Best Manhattan Venue for 2011 after a very impressive first year in business, has become a venue of last resort. And Rockwood Music Hall, whose northernmost original room was once a strong contender, is now no more than a minor-league Arlene Grocery. Even if the sound is great, most of the music there is a joke, clueless American Idol wannabes and their Instagram followers from New Jersey. Rock is very much alive throughout the rest of the world, but in Manhattan it’s flatlining.
So it’s kind of a big deal that for 2019, New York Music Daily has a new pick for Best Manhattan Venue: the Glass Box Theatre at the New School. The main attraction at the intimate, glass-walled first-floor space on 13th St. is the Stone, John Zorn’s legendary jazz, avant garde and improvisational music series that got priced out of its longtime East Village home a couple of years ago. There are also regular free concerts here featuring up-and-coming artists from the New School’s highly regarded classical and jazz programs, along with occasional theatrical or literary events.
The Glass Box Theatre is also currently home to Luisa Muhr‘s reliably cutting-edge Women Between Arts series, the only one in New York dedicated exclusively to multidisciplinary women artists. Whether there’s a jazz band cooking up front, or a quieter act, the sound is consistently excellent. Cover is always affordable: the Stone is typically $20, and Muhr’s series offers a sliding scale, with the policy of not turning away the underpaid or underemployed for lack of funds.
Audiences come to listen; the staff and security are helpful and chill, 180 degrees from the snooty hostility you get just a few blocks to the south at NYU. No, the Glass Box Theatre isn’t a fulltime music space, but neither are Bryant Park, the Lincoln Center atrium, or the American Folk Art Museum, the three most recent picks here for Best Manhattan Venue. As more and more of the borough’s real estate is appropriated exclusively for speculators, we have to make do with what we have – at least until we have a Sanders or Warren Presidency, and a shot at reclaiming what’s been stolen from us. In the meantime, it’s a good thing we have this cozy little spot to keep an old tradition going and hopefully start some new ones.