Monday, February 09, 2009


Reflections on Smalls

My jetlag is still severe, which made it easy for me this weekend to go to Smalls' late night set which started at midnight and featured Seamus Blake--a fantastic player with a first rate band, all of whom I loved. Never mind that the club was SRO and that I was stuck behind two very tall men and the bar and never did manage to see the drummer, Bill Stewart, who was one of those effortless and effervescent rhythm guys. It didn't matter. The music and musicianship of everyone--Lage Lund on guitar and Kikoski on the piano--was transporting and reminded me again of why it will be hard for us to ever permanently leave New York.

Smalls is still a great jazz club. It's also relatively cheap at a $20 cover. But it's changed.

I probably went to Smalls for the first time around 10 years ago with my crazy extended flute technique friend Ned because I'd heard about these all night sets where people would emerge at 7 AM after a long night of music. I was curious. What was a real jazz club like? The cover couldn't have been more than $10, and it was BYOB for alcohol and there were very few women. The owner sat outside on a little chair with his fluffy white dog and took our money and we dove downstairs into the dark.

There was a bar with juice, Coke and water, but it was self serve and Ned and I had fun sitting behind the counter, pouring drinks for newbies who didn't know any better. We didn't get any tips. This was a serious place. People were quiet and the music was always intense and, if not perfect, always striving. Then 9/11 happened, attendance dried up and the club closed and was sold. We were bereft. I will pay money for good gigs at the expensive clubs, but I don't always want to, and don't think I should always have to.

When Smalls reopened under a new owner, I was elated. But there were differences. The room had been made over with a real bar and real bartender. This was exciting, except that it invariably meant--as was the case this weekend--that drinkers uninterested in music showed up. Behind me was an annoying girl in a red tank top who seemed to think she was with the band, and that it was acceptable to yell out "Where is the jazz?" and to pretend she could successfully adopt a range of foreign accents (she couldn't). Some English guy was thrilled to chat up a girl by the bar by talking about his "deepening appreciation for American authenticity." Um, really? So why was he talking throughout the gig? I finally told him to shut up and my husband sent red-tank-top girl packing.

Or maybe I'm just getting old. I still love to see movies on a big screen, but I'm irritated by all the talking, and by all the unintelligent commentary that comes out of the audience in big theaters. Often, I'd rather watch a film at home. And I don't know how it has happened that serious jazz has become background music for inane conversation. Still, overall, I'm glad that Smalls exists, but I think going back will require some strategizing. The thing to do is to arrive early, get a great seat in the front away from the riff raff, and to not leave until the second set is over. That's roughly 4 hours of music, but then listening well is always a commitment.

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