club opened in 1994
, and no one who's been there since has left with an impact
less than sizeable. It's where the real underground movement
in jazz can be found. It's a "who's-who
" of the up and coming
, young and old in the NYC
jazz scene. It's a place to see younger musicians
developing their sound and growing out from their NYC jazz roots
. But most of all, it's an anomaly
. I don't believe there is any other jazz club
, so young, so old, and so untamed anywhere.
Smalls is tucked away in the basement at 183 W 10th St, next to the corner of 10th and 7th St. There is a tiny sign, but I don't think you can miss the place. They don't serve alcohol (its BYOB), in fact I don't think they serve anything other than snacks. (wick informs me that on occasion, they serve tea as well) Just around the corner is a little 24-hour convenience store that sells beer. If you go in and discretely mention you'll be at smalls, tell them what you want, and pay, you'll find your 6-pack delivered wrapped in a brown grocery bag to the door of smalls. It's all highly sketchy.
Smalls is gonna cost ya $10, but it buys ten hours of incredible music between 10pm to 8am. You can't beat a dollar per hour for what you get. Immediately upon entering, you'll meet Mitch Borden, who will ask for your $10. Mitch is the owner. He deals with the talent, the money, and the music. It's all his brainchild. If you come in fairly late in the evening, you can work a deal with him to get it cut down to $5. Only try this after 3am. Borden will usually kid around with you if you're friendly, and from there you'll spill down the steep stairs into the basement.
In through the door, and you emerge in a dark basement-lounge with low ceilings. There's an old bar, no longer serving alcohol, a bathroom, a few booths, some small tables with seats, and then the "stage." The lighting is dim, as expected, and the feeling is private. The tiny basement offers an elbowroom only, intense, and intimate setting. The music feels pure, dirty, and off the cuff. I've never experienced music this way before. The whole place has a 1960s-beat-up-the-1970s feeling, but it pulls it off amazingly well. Most of the people suck down beer or wine, and tap their feet to the music. The people are diverse, decidedly young, but intrigued. There is a comfortable feeling within the audience. I've often offered, or taken, a beer to a complete stranger. The musicians are set against the back wall, surrounded tightly by the audience, and the overall experience makes you think you're almost sitting among the players.
The 10pm to 2am shift is usually a performance by a band, and from there the jam session begins. I've seen people walk in the door at 2:30am and walk up to the stage blowing trilled trumpet notes immediately. The jams go on for hours and seem to twist and bounce from style to style and song to song. Anyone with at least some ability to follow is allowed to play, and there are nights when more than 20 people have played by the time the sun comes up.
Smalls is open during the day for band rehearsals, and a few bandleaders and members have been known to live there from time to time. It's been known as a breading ground in The Village, and it's quickly staking a claim as one of the most notable, and possibly historic, jazz clubs to come about in NYC since the 70s.
Smalls has garnered a huge presence and reputation despite its young age mainly because it allows relatively unknown musicians to establish themselves. They get a foot in the door, they're nurtured, and they become musicians. It's a fraternity of jazz musicians who understand the importance of the music they play.
Charles Owens, an impulsive reed player and Smalls regular, says the space has provided "optimal environmental conditions" for the growth of local musicians, and jazz in general. "It's a spot for very serious players who are going places," he clarifies, "people who really created their sound at Smalls." From the liner notes of the 1998 CD release "Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls.
The last time I was there was the last time I was on the east coast
. It was just after graduating college
and a day before we drove across the whole fucking country
on a two-week bender
of national parks
, dive bars
, cheap hotels, and great music. Smalls was my favorite place to wind-down when we went into the city
for a night of twists and turns. Inevitably, we'd end up there at the end of the night.
We walked in a little before 3am. I remember being giddy to get down into the little basement, drink warm beer, and listen to the magic that works there all night. Soon I was lost in blue notes, jamming piano over smooth sax, and the low runs of the skilled bassist. I do remember my friend poking me in the arm and pointing at the up-right bass player.
"Look! Freaking look at that!"
It was amazing. The man was a good 6 foot 5, with hands that dwarfed his giant instrument. He was hunched over it, his fingers stretching miles up and down the thick strings.
"I know...amazing...." I said.
I sat there for hours. There were five of us. We never even considered what time it was, or how we were getting back from The Village to the Bronx to sleep that night.
We walked out, rubbing tired eyes, and straining against the sunlight. It was 7am. I would have put money down that we were only in there for two hours. The walk to the subway was hazy. It took over an hour to ride the 1/9 back to the Bronx. We took it as far as it goes, got out, and walked a couple blocks.
I haven't been there since, but I hear it in my head every time I listen to Davis, Parker, Coltrane, Brubeck, Monk, or Ellington. It's one of those places you'll cherish forever; one of those places that influences who you are.
Check it out and support the music.