The number of top-flight jazz clubs in New York holds steady at a precious few. And precious is a good way to describe them, since they can charge as much as $35 for a cover fee -- plus drink minimums of $10 and up.
But on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in upscale restaurants, cafes and even Mamma Cassie's florist shop in the wholesale flower district, free jazz performances are flourishing. These places usually feature excellent music by duos ortrios made up of new and veteran instrumentalists and often a young singer. Have a meal or a cup of coffee while you listen. Either way, it's a melodic way to spend an afternoon.
Most of the programs started in the past year or two, and restaurant owners give varied reasons for adding music to their weekend menus. "The retail world is so complex and pressured. I thought it would be a great idea to combine a plant store with flowers, jazz and food," says Karen Nason, who opened Mamma Cassie's about two years ago but has since sold it to a pair of jazz-loving twentysomethings, who will rename it Greenroom. "It's just comfortable. That's why I did it."
"Comfortable" is the key word. While evening jazz clubs are usually formal, with audiences expected to focus intensely on the music, the jazz brunches aim to lull people by surrounding them with flowers, photographs and good music -- all the better for socializing and dining on reasonably priced food.
Here are some of New York's top spots for weekend jazz in the afternoon, most of which are spacious and accept major credit cards. Reservations, unless otherwise noted, are generally not necessary.
* Cafe Deville (103 Third Ave. at 13th Street). Vanessa Trouble (pronounced Trooble), backed by guitar, bass and drums, sings popular jazz, including Edith Piaf staples, on Sundays from noon to 3 p.m. The menu is French, including boudin blanc (blood pudding) with scrambled eggs for $10 or eggs Benedict with smoked salmon for $9. The decor is simple, including chandeliers with blue lampshades and blue curtains.
* City Crab (235 Park Ave. S. at 19th Street). A marimba player, bassist and drummer perform Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Seafood -- including crab cakes ($23.95) and a 1.5-pound lobster dinner with clams and mussels ($22.95) -- is served at a cozy bar or on high tables downstairs and at dining tables upstairs.
* Coffee Shop and Bar (29 Union Square W. at 16th Street). Bands play on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. Sandwiches, including burgers, are popular, and Portuguese flavors show up in the feijoada completa -- bacon and black bean stew with Brazilian kale, hot sauce and oranges ($14.95). For kids, the restaurant serves PB&J and milk for $3.99 to anyone under four feet tall. Seating is at the bar and in booths.
* Mamma Cassie's/Greenroom (765 Sixth Ave). This arborlike restaurant features a musician at a well-tuned acoustic piano, with accompaniment by a bassist and a drummer, on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m. Dishes include omelets, quiches, salads and sandwiches; entrees start at $8. Peek between the tree branches to see your neighbors. Reservations by Friday recommended.
* North Square (103 Waverly Place, corner of Washington Square Park and Macdougal Street). A guitarist and a bassist play standard jazz on Sundays from 12:30 to 3 p.m. in this low-ceilinged room decorated with a painting of Jean Harlow, bowls of flowers and candles in wrought-iron holders. The menu includes poached salmon with zucchini, sauteed spinach and mushrooms in a roasted red pepper sauce for $13; a $15 prix-fixe brunch includes a drink.
* Philip Marie (569 Hudson St. at 11th Street). On Sundays from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m, a duo led by Satoshi Inoue, who has played guitar with Jon Faddis and James Williams, performs old and not-so-old standards, original songs, bossa nova and waltzes from the swing era onward. The excellent food comes in large portions, including a pulled-duck sandwich for $10.95 and lobster ravioli for $11.95.
* Roth's Steak House (680 Columbus Ave. at 93rd Street). On Saturdays and Sundays, Roth's features jazz trios, including a singer, from noon to 4 p.m. The menu is simple -- pancakes ($8), Caesar salad ($8, or $2 more with grilled chicken), steak sandwiches ($11) or a very tasty salad with heaps of veggies and grilled steak strips ($10) -- and the ambiance is relaxed, with flagstone floors, old-fashioned-looking paintings and little lamps with faux leopard-skin shades on the bar.
* Sushi Samba (87 Seventh Ave. S.). Brazilians perform high-voltage samba jazz on Sundays from 2 to 6 p.m. The spiffy bandstand sits in a sunken living room next to the raw bar, and the ceiling is made up of dangling spheres of yellow glass. Brunch items include French toast with tropical fruit and foie gras butter ($16) and a South American frittata with apple-smoked bacon, chorizo, tomatillo and manchego cheese ($12).
-- Leslie Gourse