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Smalls Jazz Club: Live and So Much More

Smalls Jazz Club: Live and So Much More
By Published: December 28, 2010
After a few minutes talking with pianist Spike Wilner
Spike Wilner
Spike Wilner

piano
, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
's quote about authenticity in music comes to mind: "If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn..." Actually, the entirety of Bird's thoughts best captures the art of Spike Wilner. Bird goes on to state: "They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art."

Wilner doesn't seem to have any boundary lines these days. The pianist-turned-club owner, jazz scholar, record label entrepreneur, and internet presenter has embarked on an ambitious concept to present jazz to a worldwide audience, from a club with a capacity of just fifty persons. Smalls Jazz Club, in New York City's West Village, opened in 1994, and quickly became a musician hangout and a place to find great music until first light of morning. A regular performer from the start, the pianist called the club, "a wild place, sometimes a free-for-all." Because it had no liquor license, customers toted their own, and often the place was "not an optimal performing experience."

Today, with an affordable cover ($20 before midnight and $10 after), Small's has become a go-to listening spot in New York—much like, Wilner explains, "the former Bradley's or Village Gate, because we maintain a comfortable and informal atmosphere." Since Wilner became a co-owner in 2007, the club has upgraded the piano to a Steinway and begun recording and archiving all performances. Consider for a moment, the depth and the breadth of such an archive. Like old-time radio broadcasts, Small's documents the live performances from hundreds of artists such as JD Allen
JD Allen

sax, tenor
, Mark Turner
Mark Turner
Mark Turner
b.1965
sax, tenor
, Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch
Fred Hersch
b.1955
piano
, and Jon Irabagon
Jon Irabagon
Jon Irabagon

saxophone
, captured nightly for the past three years, with plans to archive all future shows.

Wilner explains that he is "a scholar and an archivist by nature," and it appears the musicians—about 95% of whom have given him permission to record, archive, and live-stream their performances via the internet—understand that, in the 21st century, the rules for recording and presenting jazz have been blown away. Listeners from around the globe, something like 27,000 per month, tune in nightly to listen to (and watch) live jazz or to search for an individual musician's bio and performance dates. Others can search the extensive database and audio stream unedited, live recorded performances from the archive.

Wilner has also founded the Smalls Live label, to make physical CDs available from the archive. He approaches an artist, say drummer Ari Hoenig
Ari Hoenig
Ari Hoenig
b.1973
drums
(who led his group at the club in February 2010), and asks him to choose all the music from the date to be mastered by an engineer to a hard copy CD, or iTunes download. The 14 live discs produced so far—featuring artists like Jimmy Greene
Jimmy Greene
Jimmy Greene

saxophone
, Ben Wolfe
Ben Wolfe
Ben Wolfe

bass
, Omer Avital, Eric Alexander
Eric Alexander
Eric Alexander
b.1968
sax, tenor
, Ethan Iverson
Ethan Iverson
Ethan Iverson
b.1973
piano
, Albert Heath
Albert Heath
Albert Heath
b.1935
drums
, and Peter Bernstein
Peter Bernstein
Peter Bernstein
b.1967
guitar
—have received critical acclaim. There are several more in the works for 2011, including dates from Chris Potter
Chris Potter
Chris Potter
b.1971
reeds
and John Patitucci
John Patitucci
John Patitucci
b.1959
bass
, and also Louis Hayes
Louis Hayes
Louis Hayes
b.1937
drums
and Jeremy Pelt
Jeremy Pelt
Jeremy Pelt
b.1976
trumpet
.

Interestingly enough though, and to his surprise, Wilner's own release, Solo Piano Live At Smalls (2010)—a recording culled from his performances this past summer—has been met with popular success. In fact, the first printing of the CD sold out. Wilner's performance is rooted in the stride piano tradition of James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
James P. Johnson
1894 - 1955
piano
, Art Tatum
Art Tatum
Art Tatum
1909 - 1956
piano
, and Fats Waller
Fats Waller
Fats Waller
1904 - 1943
piano
. He describes the CD as a recording "off the beaten track as a concept recording." Wilner chooses to play with old tunes and ideas in an ageless, yet modern "straightforward and melodic manner," to just, as he states, "swing." Indeed, it does. The disc has the feel of the wee small hours, when a player is playing more for himself than the small crowd left in the club.

While amassing, perhaps, the best and most complete catalog of working New York City jazz musicians, Wilner is also forging a new path for jazz. This fall he met with several major record companies, who admitted to him that "everything is falling apart," as far as the traditional approach to marketing jazz recordings. Perhaps Wilner's approach—a universal concept of club performance, video and audio streaming, and producing select music CDs—may be the best way to capture a new audience for jazz, while satisfying the needs of audiophile collectors.


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