When your downstairs neighbor is a late-night jazz club

Sure, it can be noisy, but there are some tricks of the trade. 

Sophie Ekman

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“Oh god, a jazz bar!” my dad noted on a boiling hot day in August of 2014, as he hauled garbage bags spilling over with pink felt hangers up the stairs to my first apartment in Alphabet City.

My mom, also eyeing the bar situated directly below my new home, looked at me with concern. “Do you think this will bother you?” she asked, trying to sound optimistic and not detract from the excitement of move-in day.

As someone who wrote my Common Application essay about my love of the jazz greats of the 1940s and 1950s, I wasn’t at all concerned with living above a jazz bar. I was finally living like an adult and about to begin my sophomore year at New York University. If anything, I was delighted at the prospect of hearing the occasional rendition of “Sing, Sing, Sing” in my bedroom.

Disregarding my mother’s advice to buy earplugs, I instead spent the first day at my new apartment wrapping white lights around curtain rods and hanging pictures of friends. And when I first began to hear the gentle tune of the piano wafting up to our first-floor apartment, I didn’t mind at all. (And sorry, Mom, I never did buy those earplugs.)

Eventually, that tame melody morphed into the strums of the bass and blares of the trumpet, all topped off with vocal accompaniment. The music would die down occasionally only to begin seconds later, louder and bolder than before.

That first night, I squished two pillows on either side of my head and prayed for relief in the form of sleep. In short order, I was fed up with the unrelenting music, the loud exchanges between patrons, and the potent odor of their cigarettes.

Still, while there have been many times I’ve had to stop myself from marching downstairs and telling the jazz bar customers exactly what I think about their 2 a.m. conversations, I’ve been able to enjoy some perks, too. My 20th birthday was spent eating chocolate cake with friends to the soundtrack of the saxophone in my living room. A bartender has invited me in for a drink when I was anxiously pacing around outside their stoop, waiting for an important phone call.

It’s safe to say that after three years in the same apartment, I’ve learned that survival in a place like this is possible (without going totally insane, even for jazz fans like me): 

Air-conditioning can cool and quiet things down

“Sauna” is the first word that comes to mind when thinking about summer in the city. In my NYC neighborhood, when the mercury starts to climb, the window A/C units pop up on the buildings like beads of sweat on the faces of sweltering straphangers. These life-saving machines have a dual purpose: Obviously, to cool the room, but also to create the perfect white noise to let you to study or sleep in peace. When having an A/C window unit is no longer seasonally appropriate, a rolled up towel at the base of a windowsill is another surprisingly effective noise cancellation tool.

Escaping helps from time to time

When you need a break, you need a break. Jazz, as calming as it can often be, can become maddening if it’s the only music you hear from 9 p.m. onward every night. If you have work to get done and can’t seem to concentrate, local cafés and libraries are great places to go. I was lucky enough to have access to NYU’s library during my time living above a jazz bar, but any public library is a nice place to retreat if you need some quiet.

Bartenders are (or should be) your best friends

You know the old adage, “You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar?” Well, it’s true. Having a friendly relationship, no matter how casual, with the bartender, waiter, or owner of the venue can work to your advantage. (It might get you the occasional free drink, too.) If you do need to complain about the noise, you'll more likely get a positive result if they don't just think of you as a full-time complainer. In fact, beware of calling the establishment to complain each time you’re slightly irritated.

A roommate of mine has had some awkward encounters with staff members after the “infamous phone call bombardment of 2016.” She called the bar three times in an hour one night when the noise was especially unbearable, causing our furniture to vibrate like a scene from Jurassic Park. Since then, she has reported some strange looks from the staff. For the most part, my roommates and I can bear the sound, but everyone has their limits.

And if you can plan ahead ...

Before moving in anywhere near a venue that hosts performances or plays loud music, consider the potential pitfalls before committing to your lease: How late into the night does the music play? And perhaps more important, what type of music will be played? (If you’re more of a classical music fan than a Lil Wayne one, it’s important to be honest with yourself.)

The bar downstairs advertises on a chalkboard street sign that they play music no later than midnight, but I’ve learned that this is a flexible time constraint. Luckily for me, most nights wrap up within an hour of this schedule, allowing for a relatively decent night’s sleep. Before signing the lease for an apartment like mine, I would recommend stopping by late at night to gauge the level of sound. The owner of the bar or club—or, for that matter, the real estate agent—may not always give you a best (or honest) estimate of when things start to wrap up and quiet down.

Going on my third year in this beloved apartment, I have many more fond memories than unpleasant ones. And, perhaps surprisingly, I can honestly say that I still love jazz.