Jody Amable is a music writer from the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has been seen in The Bay Bridged, Consequence of Sound, and several local weeklies.
Monikers started out pretty literal, then mapped on to the cultural zeitgeist.
“There are plenty of places named Savoy,” says Glenn Crytzer, bandleader of the Glenn Crytzer Orchestra and other swing- and jazz-based projects in New York City. Many jazz venues co-opted the name, but one Savoy Ballroom in particular was the definitive home of big band during its heyday. “When you talk about the Savoy, that’s the one in Harlem,” he says.
At the time, in the 1930s, there were a lot of Ballrooms. There were also lots of Inns, lots of Clubs, and lots of Cafes. Over the course of the music venue’s relatively short life, their monikers have changed drastically. A place’s name depends on a combination of when and where the venue is, as well as the music it serves up, but some trends emerge through the march of popular culture and concertgoers’ shifting tastes.
Late 1800s to the turn of the century: It's all pretty literal
Before there were dedicated music venues, songs played in public for a fee largely happened within the confines of classical theatrical performance (like opera), which took place in theaters that hosted several types of performances.
That started to change when Webster Hall, largely considered the first modern nightclub, opened in New York City in 1886. As the 1800s came to a close and the 1900s began, night spots that promoted performance, music included, began to proliferate across urban centers. Their names tended to reflect what patrons could expect inside. In general, there wasn’t a ton of variation in music, and there weren’t very many types of venues.
The present-day Great American Music Hall in San Francisco was born in 1907 as a bawdy entertainment hall called Blanco's. In 1971, after being put up for auction, the building was bought by four partners who turned it into a jazz club. "It was all very turn-of-the-century, in keeping with the 1907-era building," says Lee Brenkman, the venue's sound engineer since 1972. The Hall’s name, booking choices, and staff wardrobe have changed over the years, but the original interior remains.
1920s to ’30s: The rise of the "club"
By the 1920s, nightclubs and entertainment venues begin to merge. As the Harlem Renaissance exerted its influence in the 1920s and ‘30s, the neighborhood played host to venues like Club Hot Cha, Radium Club, and the famous Cotton Club. Chicago staked its claim as a major player on the entertainment scene at this time, too: Club DeLisa opened in 1930s, becoming biggest club in the city’s African-American community for the next two decades.
The term “club,” says Crytzer, communicated a certain type of performance: the floor show. Major venues of the era included hotel ballrooms, public ballrooms, jazz clubs, and supper clubs, Cryzter adds. Supper clubs were places that pushed spectacle: fine food, showgirls in glitzy costumes, and expert choreography, all backed by a band.
An incarnation of the Cotton Club is still kicking in New York, and San Francisco's Bimbo's 365 Club, opened in 1931, prides itself on its striking Art Deco facade and plush lobby.
While not quite a venue as we know it today, the Rhythm Club was a gathering place—a clubhouse of sorts—for musicians making the rounds in Harlem and looking for gigs. “Back then...not everybody necessarily had a phone in their home,” says Crytzer. If a bandleader needed a musician fast, they knew there was no shortage of talent hanging around at the Rhythm Club, socializing, grabbing a bite between sets, or being challenged to an impromptu drum-off, Crytzer says. “You could always just go into the Rhythm Club and be like, ‘Hey, I need a saxophone player for a gig in two hours.’”
1940s: The possessive takes hold
Mount a search for jazz clubs in the U.S. today and you’ll still find lists filled with formal names: Dizzy's at Lincoln Center is a modern take on the classic jazz joint; Yoshi’s is the premiere jazz club of the Bay Area. Wally’s Cafe in Boston opened in 1947, and holds the distinction of being the oldest continually-operating jazz club in the United States.
Venues with possessive names had been around since the turn of the century, but the naming convention went mainstream around the ‘40s, as popular music styles began to splinter and diversify. Jazz was still a hot commodity, but swing, bebop, and blues began to stick in communities across the United States. Various forms of folk music, previously mostly unwritten and undocumented, started to merge into country and, eventually, rock and roll in honky tonks and juke joints across the South. On Chicago’s South Side, Pepper’s Lounge and Theresa’s helped performing artists shape modern blues for live audience.
1950s to ‘60s: Things get weird
At this point in venue history, wisps of flight and whimsy started to become intertwined with more straightforward names. It started with some puns and plays on common phrases, like the Scoot Inn in Austin and the Bitter End in New York. Then, as psychedelia took hold, names got curiouser and curiouser. Cafe Wha?, the famous New York venue where Dylan and Hendrix cut their teeth, opened in 1959. In Chicago, the first Whisky a Go Go opened a year earlier, migrating to its more famous Sunset Strip location in 1964.
Late ‘70s to ‘80s: We got your number
Throughout the 1970s and into the early ‘80s, clubs and venues drew from a deep well of naming conventions, often pulling from decades prior. As popular film swung toward science fiction, alphanumeric names similar to those of characters in works like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Star Wars saga began showing up across the country. Alphanumerics were apparent at the 9:30 Club in D.C., TC’s Lounge in Austin, and The 40-Watt Club in Athens, Georgia. On the West Coast, famed DIY spot 924 Gilman debuted in 1986, borrowing from the venue’s address. The two clubs most commonly associated with New York in the ‘70s are Studio 54 and CBGB, and the well-known art hub 8BC (which you might recognize from a prominent name-check in the lyrics of Rent) opened in 1983. Latin music hub SOB’s opened in 1981 and still operates today.
Alphanumerics often tended to denote venues dedicated to hip hop or electronica—two new genres that were made with machines.
‘80s and beyond: “The” galore
Though “The” names had been around for decades (The Troubadour in L.A., The Showbox in Seattle), it wasn’t until the ‘80s and ‘90s that they started to reign supreme, particularly in Los Angeles. As the Sunset Strip’s hair metal scene swept the nation, clubs like The Roxy and The Rainbow entered household lexicon. In Chicago, The Empty Bottle opened in 1992, and house music was first made in places like The Power Plant and The Music Box.
As the ‘90s come to a close, the nouns affixed to the articles start to get a little odder. This is especially true on the West Coast: The Smell opens its doors in L.A. in 1999, and The Echo follows two years later.
2000s to 2010s: Whatever you want them to be
These days, venues are still often named after nouns but, more often than not, the "the" gets chopped off the front end. Paper Tiger in San Antonio replaced long-standing rock club The White Rabbit in 2015: new animal, and no "The" this time.
The nouns that remain don’t always make a lot of literal sense when applied to a music venue. Pehrspace, opened in 2006, is a DIY arts space (and, like many of its kind, is in danger of eviction at the time of this writing). In Brooklyn, Saint Vitus serves up mostly metal. In Philly, Kung Fu Necktie is an indie rock staple of Front Street.
In Seattle, one venue’s name is basically gibberish. “Neumos is just a made-up word,” says the owner, Jason LaJeunesse. For outsiders, it’s not easy to guess from its title what takes place inside its walls—but for Northwesterners, Neumos is a safe bet for up-and-coming indie bands.
The space originally opened in the early ‘90s as Moe’s Mo’Roc’N Café, a kitschy spot with a clown for a mascot. By the early aughts, the space needed an upgrade, and the theme started to sit a little strangely with the club’s standing as a respected spot for emerging bands. So in 2004, it toned down the circus motif and re-opened as Neumo’s Crystal Ball Reading Room—later truncated to “Neumo’s,” a condensation of “New Moe’s,” and a nod to its former life.