Last call at Smalls
Jazz was never supposed to be for the rich. It wasn’t played for tourists and aspiring aficionados. Jazz is American music—peoples’ music to loosen up your average stiff. Back in the day, (whenever that day came and went), a place like Smalls on 10th St. and 7th. Ave. So. would be considered a neighborhood treasure, and for almost 10 years, the regulars here have certainly believed that.
Bass player Ari Roland has played Smalls more than 2000 times over the past eight and a half years. He has joined players such as Zaid Nasser on alto sax in a steady rotation of up to 18 different groups a week. These groups get paid—fair wages—and then many of these same players, along with you-never-know-who, come back later to jam from three to six in the morning.
Cheryl, now enrolled at Oberlin, has been coming down from Riverside ever since high school. She’s sitting next to a fellow sketching the trio performing what I think is a Joe Jackson number, only in 7/8 time. The $10 cover, late hours and sit-anywhere, bring-your-own policies are what first drew her and her schoolmates. They come back for the music.
Despite weekend lines around the corner, the place is shutting its doors in a few days. Blame it on the economy, the smoking ban, the fire department, the limited capacity or the tourists—it still sounds like another piece of social science shit circumstance.
The good news, as it were, is that this has happened before. It happened to the Knitting Factory and it happened to Cafe Wha?, and both survived with their basic souls intact. They may not be as cozy as before, but most of the old acts returned, often to their benefit in the new spaces. It’s something of a fact and irony that whatever stays clandestine around here for more than a couple of weeks will either go broke, or some long arm of the city will drive it so far underground nobody can ever find it.
Promoting jazz isn’t like promoting a rave. You don’t see much guerrilla marketing for a jazz gig. You can’t cart around a sound system and wheel in a DJ to a different warehouse every week. Nitrous oxide balloons might still sell to some of the crowd, but you need to provide the little things, like chairs and good acoustics.
These days, Smalls owner Mitchell Borden is looking a little bit further down the road to Fat Cat at 75 Christopher St., primarily a pool bar offering tables by the hour. The side of this larger space was opened to musical acts from Thursdays through Saturdays. Capacity is about 150 and the cover is usually $15. The sound is surprisingly close, and the pool hall is forgotten with the first chords.
Jason Lindner, known for leading his big band at Smalls on Mondays, added Fat Cat to his schedule with ease. This is no doubt due, in some measure, to the fact that his electric sextet had the chance to develop at Smalls. Borden is well-known for supporting players with rehearsal time, steady gigs and even monetary help. His philosophy is simple and functional: The more you play, the better you get. How much better Lindner can get is anyone’s guess. He’s a fascinating virtuoso and a generous band leader. His players keep working on a modern-day big-band sound that requires plenty of musical space.
Other Smalls regulars making the move to Fat Cat include Mark Turner, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Seamus Blake and Chris Potter.
Ari Roland seemed optimistic despite the closing. "These days it will be hard to replace somewhere like Smalls, where a kid from Jersey or from the Island could take a train into the Village, then sit down, get a little buzz going and feel a part of the scene—take it all in. A place where players can really work on their chops. But there will always be another place to play—because this is New York and that’s what we do. We play and we listen."
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