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."