Amsterdam: The Jazz City

Headshot of Emma Basco.
Emma Basco
March 16, 2023

One of the things I’ve learned since starting my second semester in Amsterdam is that the people you choose to surround yourself with are really the ones who will shape your experiences of study abroad. Since making new friends, I’ve learned more about Amsterdam than I thought possible. I thought that, having been here for four months already, getting to know most of where I am going and finding places I like, that how I experienced Amsterdam the first time would be solidified. I know Amsterdam as I know Amsterdam. I hadn’t even thought about how the friends I would make, the new people I chose to surround myself with, would come to define a new experience of the same city, to the exciting extent that Amsterdam has only grown, showing me new sides and corners and edges and scenes. I start off by thanking them, because since meeting new people, I’ve come to realize that Amsterdam was and still is a huge jazz city, and so I have reviewed below my favorite live music and jazz venues that I’ve frequented with my friends.

Cafe Alto

Cafe Alto is a tiny jazz cafe hidden between a pizza restaurant and a steakhouse in Leidseplein. The venue is small, going back farther than it looks on the outside, but by no means expansive. Comfortably, Cafe Alto could maybe fit 40 people. Walking in, it almost feels like a foyer, the narrow space defined by the stage, the staircase, and the bar. The interior is old-fashioned and charming, like the set of a vintage film, and everyone you encounter could be a main character. The drinks are strong, expensive, and tasty. Ornate gold lamps provide warm pockets of light. The coat hangers on the wall near the entrance and under the bar are always at max capacity. The seating, against the wall, up at the bar, or at the tables in front of the stage, are always comfortably packed. Lively conversation wells up near the entrance, where everyone stands or leans against the wall. Towards the stage, there is a raised platform of booths bringing parties closer to the music. Over everyone’s heads, through the booths and across the bar, float the beats of the drums, cadences of the bass, and the singing melodies of the lead guitar, wrapping the setting up in warm, inviting cadences.


Bimhuis is located close to Central Station, right on the water facing Noord. My friends and I were a bit confused when we first arrived (on bikes of course). The venue looks like a giant black box theater sticking out the side of a grand, glass hotel. From the tram stop, you need to climb the bridge that leads right up to the entrance of the hotel, walk through a spacious, clean foyer with high ceilings, and up an off-to-the-side set of stairs to the left. The black walls of the box close in when you walk through the hallway with the coat racks and bathrooms. If Cafe Alto is like an old fashioned movie set, charming and ornate, Bimhuis almost feels like a small concert venue, with a panoramic view of the water and city lights, a handful of tables and chairs and a sleek bar. Rather than a stage, the musicians are right in front of the audience, posed before a classy red curtain. Bimhuis hosts an array of jazz nights: free jazz, urban, world, electronic, and contemporary. My friends and I went on a Tuesday for a free jam session, which started around 9p. Most people were standing for the first half of the night, milling around with tap beers in their hands, meeting new people and recognizing familiar faces. Towards the end of the session, we finally secured seats somewhat close to the front. Red and purple and blue lights illuminated the musicians as they swung about, the strobe lights glancing off their instruments. Every once in a while the guitarist would take off, or the drums, or the bass, and conversation would die down briefly as everyone absorbed the music, taking it all in, against the glittering night time backdrop of Amsterdam Noord.

The Waterhole

I have never had a bad time at the Waterhole. Even from the outside, people standing in lines for clubs at Leidseplein on a Saturday night can glimpse the crowds of people around the Waterhole, the music practically bursting out of the door. Unlike the clubs on the weekend, you only pay 4 euros to enter the lively, bustling, quite chaotic space. The bar extends all the way down the left side of the space, all shiny with light up beer signs and the glowing taps. Three pool tables sit between the back hallways and the main crowds, the players and the audience creating their own atmosphere of good-natured banter. It is often too crowded to get a real close look, but the venue is somewhat Western and music themed; cowboy hats on the coasters, a black and white mural of Amy Winehouse and other artists gazing across the room from the right wall, the barrels for outdoor seating. Aside from its quirks here and there, the Waterhole is the most "music venue" music venue I’ve visited in Amsterdam. The nights I’ve gone, the bands perform covers of famous rock and roll songs and get the whole place on their feet, screaming and singing. Often there are people dancing right in front of the stage; once, the guitarist stepped down and joined the audience, guitar and head swinging. It can get crowded, but the Waterhole is not the Waterhole unless you need to work your way to the long bar, there are no seats left, so you take your drink onto the dance floor and sing and dance with the musicians right in front of you. 

Amsterdam continues to amaze me. As the rains die down and the winds pick up and the sun makes more appearances every week, my friends and I have found more ways to go out and make the most of a night out. And you can never go wrong with live music. My favorite thing about jazz and live music venues is the atmosphere created out of good conversation set against sensational music. Against the bar, conversations can be had while, close to the stage, you can dance and sing like a true concert. What I also like is that there is a performance to watch. Everyone is there to enjoy the same music, and the energy of the room is made nearly tangible by the buzz of conversation, the lively music, and the collective good feeling.

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Headshot of Emma Basco.

Emma Basco

My name is Emma Basco and I am originally from Sacramento, California. I am currently studying literature and writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. I love to read on the beach, doodle on post it notes, paint with watercolors, and unearth new cafes and restaurants. My hidden talent is that I can make an excellent pot of noodles from packaged ramen.

2022 Fall, 2023 Spring
Home University:
Sarah Lawrence College
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