Beyond his work recording shows at Smalls and breaking new ground with ways to distribute the music, Wilner has his hands full with maintaining the club, managing it and keeping the staff organized, not to mention practicing piano and performing. "There's the lawyers, accountantsit's insane having to stay on top of the taxesplus the banking and payroll. Everything's on the books; we do Federal withholding for everybody. Then there's the bar management, ordering booze and beer, keeping a wine list. Smalls is very labor intensive. You could just open a bar, and you wouldn't have to work as hard as we do here. But the thing about Smalls is that it's not so much a jazz club as some kind of religious organization. It's really like a monastery. It's a place for art, and there's a very dense community, with many interpersonal relationships that I'm in the center of. It involves a lot of social work. I'll loan money to people, work with them on getting medical help, write letters of recommendation for people to help them stay in the City. Artists come here to paint, writers come to write. We're very concerned with the culture of art in New York, and I want to make sure that our little thing here is still viable in the City because it's so rare now. It's almost gone. That's our mission."
As a lifelong New Yorker, Wilner has seen a lot of changes in the City and in the local jazz landscape. He's been in the thick of the jazz scene since the 1980s, when he joined the very first class of students in the jazz performance program at the New School. "That was a seminal event in my life," he recalls. "I was kind of floating around at that time, waffling between music and computers. I decided that I was really a musician, and I heard about this new program that was being started at the New School by Arnie Lawrence
, who's since passed away, unfortunately. I was auditioned by Arnie and Tommy Flanagan
, although I had no idea who Tommy Flanagan was at the time. He was just a very kind man. I remember at the audition I played 'Take the A Train,' and I played the second chord as a half diminished chord, but the actual chord is D7 flat 5. And Tommy came from behind, reached over and said, "Son, don't you mean this?" And he played the chord. I remember the sound of that chord at the audition just stunned me, and after that I went out and bought a ton of Tommy Flanagan records. He became one of my great heroes to this day,actually.
"The initial class of that school was chock full of the stars of our current scene: Brad Mehldau
who became one of my best friends Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, Jesse Davis
, Sam Yahel
, Joe Strasser
and all the guys from the rock bands the Blues Travelers and the Spin Doctors. They were all there as part of the initial class. Roy Hargrove went through there, too. It was an amazing collection of young, talented guys who have become successful jazz professionals.
"At that time it was an amazing thing; it was so small, it was run more like a forum than a school. Everyone would gather together in a room. Some great jazz master would come in, and we'd just hang out with him. That was the school. Jimmy Cobb would show up, and we'd all play with Jimmy Cobb. Or Donald Byrd
would come in. I mean, we met Art Blakey, Milt Jackson
, Ram Ramirez
and Cecil Payne
a great aggregation of people.
"And we also caught the very tail end of the great New York jazz scene. When I was a freshman, sophomore and junior at school, there were still 35 or 40 jazz clubs in town. You could still go all over the place at night, Bradley's, the Village Gate and so many other places and still hear the Tommy Flanagan
and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. I heard all those guys, because it was still part of the scene at that time."
Wilner has fond memories of the Village Gate especially. "That's where there were jam sessions all the time. Art D'Lugoff owned it, and Raphael D'Lugoff
, his son, who's a great pianist, became a great friend of mine. The Gate was just like a madhouse, musicians in and out, jam sessions. That was the hang. They finally went out of business in '93, when they lost their lease."
Not long after the Village Gate closed, Mitch Borden opened the original Smalls, in April 1994, at the same location of the current club, 183 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. "I remember I was hanging with Grant Stewart, and he got a phone call. He said, 'Hey there's this new club opening, I just got a gig there. Smalls.' We all came down to Smalls, and Mitch had this free-for-all approach to the music. It was just this rumpus room for musicians, and it became kind of a wild pit. It's hard to describe. There was no bar; there was no anything. People would pay ten dollars to get in and bring their own beer. There was no liquor license. It was open 24/7. You were just there all the time. I became part of the fabric back then. I played my own gigs there, and I led a jam session, a late night session, from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m.
"Eventually Mitch was undone by rising costs and the fire department and City codejust getting penalized to death. The City changed so much, especially after 9/11. It was interesting to watch. It went from a much freer kind of vibe to something that was much more controlled. It's still very strict now. Mitch finally went bankrupt, and the club was closed in 2003 for almost two years. Then it reopened in a weird incarnation as a Brazilian venue before I became a partner back in 2007."
While Smalls doesn't have the wild and loose feel it had in the '90s, it's open seven days a week until 4 a.m., with three or four bands playing every night, and the club still hosts late-night jam sessions on Mondays and Tuesdays. Wilner finds booking bands at the club to be a challenge. "It's hard because I have a lot of friends. I love these musicians so much, dearly, but I can't just give the people who are my friends the gigs, because it doesn't quite work like that. If there's a senior artist who deserves a gig and needs it, we provide for them. If there are guys who are just clearly at the forefront of the scene and there's no question that they should be performing, then that's obvious. And then there are young guys who are up-and-coming, and we really want to promote the ideas coming through the ranks. And we have to think about who are the artists who really bring something to the club.
"I always tell people the scene dictates the booking policy for me. We just try to keenly observe it and be as fair as possible. I try to be very compassionate and attentivebut at the same time, I can't give everybody everything that they want. We've now gone to an invitation-only booking policy, actually.
"The club is so small. Our budget is tiny. The artists who play here get paid less than what they should be making and less than what they might make somewhere else, but they're glad to play here because of our environment and who we are. They know that we have the best interest in mind in terms of the music. The integrity level here is very high. And the playing field is very high. If you're playing a gig at Smalls, maybe Dave Kikoski is going to be in the audience, or Greg Hutchinson or Harold Mabern. You're not going to be playing for a bunch of tourists who don't know anything about jazz. This is a very sophisticated audience, and it's not just the musicians who come herewe attract people who are serious jazz fans who really know music. The bar is set high for anyone who plays here, even at jam sessions, and that's something that we want to maintain."
Harold Mabern Trio, Live at Smalls
Joe Magnarelli, Live at Smalls
Alex Sipiagin, Live at Smalls
Will Vincent, Live at Smalls
David Schnitter, Live at Smalls
Tyler Mitchell, Live at Smalls
Grant Stewart, Live at Smalls
Dezron Douglas, Live at Smalls
Joel Frahm Quartet, Live at Smalls
Bernstein/Goldings/Stewart, Live at Smalls
Bruce Barth Trio, Live at Smalls
Cyrille Aimee + Friends, Live at Smalls
Spike Wilner, Solo Piano Live at Smalls
(SmallsLIVE, 2011) Ben Wolfe Quintet, Live at Smalls
Planet Jazz , Live at Smalls
Ethan Iverson/Albert "Tootie" Heath/ Ben Street, Live at Smalls (SmallsLIVE, 2010) Seamus Blake Quintet, Live at Smalls
Steve Davis Quintet, Live at Smalls
(SmallsLIVE, 2010) Peter Bernstein Quartet, Live at Smalls
Kevin Hays Trio, Live at Smalls
(SmallsLIVE, 2010)Photo Credit
Pages 1, 4: Herb Scher