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A Jazz Marriage: Smoke and One For All

Nick Catalano By

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After 12 years of classic jazz bookings and extraordinary patron loyalty, Smoke deserves legendary status right next to Birdland (the old club of the 50's), Basin Street, The Village Vanguard, The Blue Note, and a couple of the old 52 St. clubs. In addition to having unique intimacy, a special staff who could give a seminar in how to run a jazz club and a sensible food and drink menu, Smoke has had the prescience to embrace the hottest hard bop band around—One For All—and give it a permanent home.

In order to appreciate this observation, you would have to be old enough to remember the thrill of sliding into a chair in Birdland's "peanut gallery" in 1954 and chatting with Horace Silver before the opening set began. Or sitting near the bandstand at Basin Street in 1955 and asking Max Roach or Clifford Brown how the tour was going. Such clubs and a few others like them gave carte blanche booking privileges to these immortal groups and wonderful myths and tales of that scene have abounded ever since.

Smoke holds 52 people, and when One For All convenes—tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, trumpeter Jim Rotondi, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist David Hazeltine, bassist John Webber, and drummer Joe Farnsworth—you'd better have reservations well in advance. The magic of this group has resounded time and again since Smoke began operations, and seats are always difficult to obtain. Owner Frank Christopher remembers hearing some of the aforementioned personnel at Auggie's (Smoke's predecessor) in 1986. In those days Joe Farnsworth had Junior Cook and Cecil Payne with him on Auggie's bandstand. He met Alexander in 1986, and shortly after Rotondi came along. By the mid-'90s, Davis and Hazeltine had joined in. The present group was together before Auggie's closed in 1998 and reopened as Smoke on April 9, 1999. As Webber puts it: "We were playing at Smoke before Smoke was Smoke."

The marriage between the One For All musicians is serendipitous. The club is so small that when the horn players finish their solos, they have to stand in front of the bathroom door and adjacent kitchen door, and invariably wind up opening these doors for patrons and waiters. Seated on the bar stool closest to the bandstand, my stool actually abutted the bathroom door where Rotondi was standing while the rhythm section wailed away. Because the space was so tight it seemed quite natural to chat with Rotondi, Alexander and Davis, during the rhythm solos. I would have thought that the guys would be annoyed at having to open doors for the bathroom attendees or get impatient at having to pass hamburger plates from waiter to waiter in the middle of their performance. Instead they were all smiles and seemed amazingly comfortable in the middle of this confusion. When I realized that they'd been doing all of this during their 12 year stint at the club, I was overtaken by a feeling of wonder about the whole Smoke genesis.

Each of the One For All players has developed an important jazz career, with huge discographies, myriad headline engagements, and résumés filled with critical praise. In short, they're all doing great but despite all of this the highlight of their performing schedule comes when they can gather at Smoke. Describing the experience Alexander says "We've been together so long and we're all such good friends that it really is almost like a family." Telling photos of this intimacy are featured in the group's Incorrigible (Jazz Legacy, 2010).

All of this is so unique that it can only be experienced in person. So when One For All hits Smoke, get down there. But call ahead far in advance.

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