Smoke Rises: A jazz venue returns to the Upper West Side
On a recent Friday night at Smoke, the Upper West Side jazz club that’s been mostly closed since the spring of 2020, owners and staff have been expectedly scrambling as a long-awaited reopening approaches. As the crowd took their places for a preview concert, the technicians climbed the ladders and dealt with minor crises. One of the venue’s co-owners, Paul Stache, consulted with an in-room and live sound engineer, while the other, Molly Sparrow Johnson, kept tabs on a wait staff who will serve increased capacity of around 80 when it reopens on Thursday.
The group, meanwhile, couldn’t have looked calmer. On the newly expanded bandstand, with red curtains as lavish as the interior of a jewelry box as a backdrop, pianist David Hazeltine and his longtime trio — “the cats,” as Stache called them — beamed at each other, happy to be back. Their set, once started, exemplified the sound of Smoke: warm, small-group jazz steeped in tradition but fueled by the invention of the moment. It’s inviting yet uncompromising, sophisticated yet playful, the sound of a neighborhood jazz club with an international reputation.
“It’s always been a musician’s dream to play here, even when it was a hole in the wall,” Hazeltine said in an interview between sets. “From the start, it was above all a music hall, which is rare for jazz clubs. Smoke has always had the best sound system, and the owners care deeply about the music itself and the well-being of the musicians.
The legendary singer Mary Stalling, which has been performing since the early 1960s, agrees. “The smoke is home,” she said in an interview in early July. “It’s got this real jazz hall feeling that’s hard to describe. It reminds me of when I was a kid and what the clubs were like. Stallings, who will be performing at Smoke August 11-14, added, “In a setting like that, when you make music, you feel like you can do anything.”
Stache and Frank Christopher founded Smoke in 1999 in the space at 2751 Broadway that had been Augie’s Jazz Bar, where Berlin-born Stache tended the bar and served tables when he moved to New York. “The inspiration at the time was to build a club that could accommodate a grand piano for Harold Mabern to play,” Stache said, referring to the bandleader and composer who would come to be associated with the club. Mabern died in 2019.
Smoke not only gave Mabern a place to play, but also a place to record his last half-dozen albums for Smoke Sessions, the label Stache and Christopher founded in 2014. “It was really on demand. cats playing here,” Stache said. He had always recorded the music at his club, sharing it with the musicians.
Eventually, the sound quality was high enough that some musicians wanted to release the recordings. Smoke Sessions released several of these live releases, recorded and produced by Stache, including Hazeltine’s 2014″For all we know” album (“a commendable work,” said the New York City Jazz Record).
But, in typical Smoke fashion, the endeavor quickly became increasingly ambitious, as the label began setting aside studio time for Sear Sound in Hell’s Kitchen to document the work of several generations of top musicians. , including Renee Rosnes, Orrin Evans, Jimmy Cobb. , Vincent Herring and Eddie Henderson. At a time when major labels tend to overlook mid- and late-career jazz players, Smoke Sessions have gone all out, with eight albums slated for 2023, including LPs from Al Foster, Wayne Escoffery and Nicholas Payton.
Independent jazz labels, like neighborhood jazz clubs, aren’t exactly a growth industry in 2022. While venues like Smalls and Zinc Bar have weathered the pandemic, scene stalwarts like the Jazz Standard and the 55 Bar have closed. At the same time, many enterprising musicians have increasingly become accustomed to performing outside of the club world with minimal drinks, in restaurants, homes and venues like the Downtown Music Gallery, a records or pass-the-tip-jar bars like Brooklyn. Bar Bayeux. The timing suggests the beginnings of the 1970s loft scene, which led to a vital creative flowering but offered legacy musicians like those on Smoke fewer opportunities for high-paying gigs.
Stache and Sparrow Johnson, who are married and business partners, agree that for the club and label to thrive and the players to get paid, the bar and restaurant must also thrive. Hence the enlargement.
The old Smoke was tight, so intimate that on a walkthrough audiences could hear more of what was going on in the bathroom than they’d like. During the pandemic shutdown, as Smoke experimented with sidewalk concerts and live streaming, the co-owners finalized a deal with their landlord to take over the leases for two vacant spaces next door, a former law firm and a dry cleaner. Now the bar and bathrooms have been moved to an entirely separate lounge area. The revamped music room offers audiences more personal space than many jazz clubs and has sight lines that are clear enough that someone seated at a back table can still see the pianist’s fingers.
Sparrow Johnson is excited about the lounge, an inviting space designed to invite people – like the many passers-by who peek into the display cases at a show – who just want a drink or a chat but might feel intimidated by a jazz club or cover charges. She’s also moved by the signs of Smoke’s established place in the neighborhood vibe of a club where it’s not uncommon to see children in the audience. She said: “I recently had someone come over to interview as a waiter, and he said, ‘I have very formative memories of my parents bringing me here. That’s the whole story. People have those memories, and it’s also a living thing going on that’s still happening.
These memories now go back decades – and are still ongoing. The act Stache and Christopher booked for Smoke’s first opening, in 1999, was NEA saxophonist and jazz master George Coleman, who will also headline this week’s official reopening. It will be the third time that Coleman, now 87, has ushered in a new era for the club; in 2001, a band from Coleman played Smoke’s first post-9/11 sets. “People were sitting there a little broken, and he went over there and calmed people down,” Stache recalled. “He wasn’t trying to cheer people up. It was more about we are here together, and I will play what I can for you.”
That night, Coleman and company did what musicians always do in Smoke: they played the piece in its moment. Hazeltine and her trio did the same two Fridays, delivering a seething set of standards and originals. Stache has heard these musicians countless times over the years, in the club or in the studio, but near the end of the first set, he was standing in the back of the club, filming a Hazeltine solo on his phone. As co-owner, he could surely catch up on the live recording. But in the room, at this time, he couldn’t help himself.