By Karen Rempel
Smalls Jazz Club, in the cellar at 183 West 10th Street, makes an incalculable contribution to jazz music every day, incubating hundreds of talented young jazzcats since its inception in 1994. Owner and jazz pianist Spike Wilner tells us a bit about the history of the club as Smalls celebrates surviving and thriving for a quarter century in The Village.
Spike has been a professional musician since the age of 18, and has recorded five albums, including the 2018 Spike Wilner Trio release, Odalisque. A new father, his touring is curtailed a bit, but Spike plays at least twice a week at Smalls or its harmonic sister club, Mezzrow, a few steps away across Seventh Avenue.
Jazz Spawning Ground
Here’s a tiny shortlist of the many cats who came up in the New York jazz scene in the 1990s and got their start at Smalls:
• Pianist, arranger, and composer Brad Mehldau
• Saxophonist Joshua Redman
• Guitarist Peter Bernstein
• Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel
• Bassist, composer, and bandleader Omer Avital
• Drummer Lawrence “Lo” Leathers
Spike recalls that Mitch Borden opened Smalls in 1994. Mitch created an environment that was an open space for musicians to hang out. He charged a small fee at the door. There was no liquor license, people brought beer, and it was a college-age hang for Spike’s generation of musicians, who were all in their early 20s. Spike said, “He gave them all a home. A lot of these guys became very famous, major voices of our generation. But it was also a place for older jazz musicians, old bebop guys, some of them alcoholics and addicts. They would stay and sleep. It was kind of a wild spot and just dirty, a dive, a lot going on, people had their own keys, people would live there. It went 24/7, couldn’t exist now with the current environment of regulations.”
Spike performed there weekly and became very close friends with Mitch. Then there was 9/11. Suddenly the city changed drastically, economics changed, rent increased, the old-school Bohemian philosophy didn’t work anymore.
Smalls was in danger of dying like disco, and it did close in 2002 for about a year and a half. Then a restaurateur bought it, brought it up to code, and got a liquor license, with Mitch brought in to manage the club. After a while the new owner wanted out, so Spike and Lee Kostrinsky bought the lease and liquor license, and took over in February of 2007. Spike’s mission was to restore Smalls as a hang—a musician-friendly environment.
In 2011, Spike bought out Lee, and has continued to run the club with Mitch. The club is very successful, renowned to jazz musicians and fans throughout the world, partly due to Smalls’s live webstream, which has broadcast and recorded every performance since 2007. Thousands watch live shows every day. Smalls’s audio-video archive contains an astonishing 15,000 recordings of 4,000 musicians.
In 2013, Spike opened Mezzrow, patterned after Bradley’s, a Village jazz hang that closed in 1996. Spike thought Mezzrow would be an intimate piano duo room, a holding room for Smalls, which couldn’t accommodate all the people coming. But Mezzrow took on a life of its own. Spike made a brilliant marketing decision, and one $20 ticket works for both clubs, allowing people to go back and forth. But be warned, both clubs sell out every weekend.
Mitch decided to retire this year, in the 25th year of Smalls’s almost continuous operation. Now Spike is running both clubs himself, with a fierce will to keep this jazz forum alive. “We have a very passionate audience and driving musicians, both young and old. It’s a miracle, people don’t realize how special it is. It’s special because the music is alive, it’s a lifeform people want, the culture of Greenwich Village is alive with us.”
Remembering Lo Leathers
A regular player at Smalls, drummer Lawrence “Lo” Leathers was tragically killed in the Bronx in early June. Smalls has mounted a banner behind the drum kit in memoriam to Lo. Alan Gardner, a patron of the club and friend of Spike’s, recalls Lo lording over the late night scene at Smalls:
Lawrence came to New York and he cut his teeth a lot. He was at Juilliard and left. At Smalls they have late night jams for young jazz acts, and Lawrence was one of those jazz guys at one point, drumming with anybody and everybody. Aaron Diehl is a real piece. A piano player, immensely talented, brilliant guy, he’s got a great band and Paul Sikivie plays bass for him. The singer Cécile McLorin Salvant just won DownBeat’s 2019 Jazz Artist of the Year and Female Vocalist of the Year; she’s won two Grammy awards, Aaron’s trio backed her. So Aaron, Paul, and Lawrence won Grammys. After Lawrence hit it, he was getting all the gigs. Lawrence is a peripatetic kind of guy, he had stuff in France for about a year, but he would bring young players back to Smalls to share that opportunity that he had with people that he saw had talent. He lorded it over the late night, he was very close to Spike and a lot of the people there. They all knew Lawrence, it’s a horrible loss.
I’ve spent many a jazz-soaked evening at Smalls, have rung in a few New Years there, and even had the temerity to sit at the piano once at 4 a.m. I’ve gone there with older, established jazz musician friends after their sets at other clubs, and I’ve met young musicians who flew from Europe or Japan and came straight to Smalls without even checking their bags. The vibe feels like a volcanic eruption of new jazz life, cheered on by crowds of boisterous jazzheads.
Spike agrees. “Any evening you’re down there, you’re going to see something unusual, the music, the people who are there, the celebrities. Come after midnight, that’s when the magic happens.”
Smalls Jazz Club
183 West 10th Street, basement
Greenwich Village, NYC, 10014