Dutch Treats: Alto Jazz Club, Amsterdam

My very first day in Amsterdam I took an afternoon “siesta” (nap) so I could go out that night to hear live music – one of the main activities I wanted to do while on vacation.

I went to the Alto Jazz Cafe, which is right off the Leidseplein (a part of Amsterdam with lots of cafes, music clubs and is the center of a nightlife scene in A’dam.)

The Alto Jazz Cafe is easy to spot when you walk off the Leidseplein square area (it’s down the street with the Pancake House on the corner) because the club sports a gigantic saxophone as its sign. The club opens every night at 9pm, but the music won’t start before 10pm. This is common in A’dam, nightlife doesn’t get started until late. (On Saturday night there is a $5 euro door charge, other nights there is no entrance fee.)

From my observations, Alto is a place mostly for locals. The walls of the cafe are dark wood panels, a low ceiling, and extremely dim lighting that you could call atmospheric. On the walls, as with so many clubs, there are posters of musicians, famous and local.

The space is long and narrow, with the stage at the back, a “platformed” area just beneath the stage with four tables and chairs, then a space with just chairs set along the left side of the wall, and then eventually towards the entrance a small bar on the right – where people pack themselves in.

The space gets very crowded so if you want to enjoy the music its best to get there closer to 9-9:30p so you can get a seat where you are able to see the stage. Otherwise it quickly gets to be standing room only. I doubt you can fit 75 people in that club!

The night I went there was an excellent jazz trio playing. The lead of the trio was a tall, heroin-chic-thin woman with long straight blonde hair who wore a gold lame sleeveless blouse. (Her name is Saskia Laroo, and is a local legend.) She alternated playing the trumpet and the saxophone, bleating out an improvised beat which captivated the audience. Backing her up she had a drummer and a bass player. The trio had a great energy, and it was obvious the crowd was familiar with this group, they gave them a lot of love.

I was so entranced with the music and the vibe, time slipped by. Around one o’clock in the morning, I leaned over and asked the guy next to me, “Excuse me, what time do the trams stop running?” fully expecting him to say they ran all night because this was Amsterdam.

“Midnight,” he said.

I immediately realized without the tram, I wasn’t sure how to get back to my bed and breakfast! It was my first night in town, and I had barely figured out how to navigate to and from the Central Station, where all the trams originate. Uh oh.

“Oh no!” I said, laughing, “I guess I’ll take a cab,” I added, amused at my own newbie travel error.

“Cabs are very expensive,” he said, in a thick Dutch accent. “I could give you a ride. My car is just around the corner.”

I looked at the gentleman in question: a handsome, nicely dressed guy in a sport coat and button down shirt… compared to all the flannel shirt / blue jeans / sneakers crowd around us. (I had on a dress and heels, again, setting me apart as “different” from the local women, as per my previous post. It would have been “obvious” I was a tourist before I opened my mouth, but definitely after the first word, anyone would know I was American.)

We introduced ourselves, and I accepted the offer that Jon, (pronounced Yon) decided to give me a ride in his little European car back to my bed and breakfast at 2am, on a Sunday night.

(Jon, it turned out, was the IT manager at a local Dutch bank, and had taken Monday as a vacation day, which is why he was in the jazz club so late on Sunday.)

I MUST give huge “plus points” for Dutch kindness and hospitality for Jon to offer a strange woman a ride to her hotel in the middle of the night. Also, Jon was a total gentleman (remember, a girl from New York City has this radar built in…) he did not attempt to “take advantage” of the situation… although he did mention he would be back at Alto again next Sunday. Unfortunately I was unable to make it back there that night because I got sick!

Jon drove me around town a bit, pointing out the tourist sights on the way back to my place, and safely deposited me on my doorstep, wishing me a great holiday.

What a great night of great jazz, and Dutch kindness from a stranger.

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