Smoke Rises: A Jazz Room Returns on the Upper West Side

On a recent Friday evening at Smoke, the storefront Upper West Side jazz club that’s been mostly shuttered since the spring of 2020, owners and staff scrambled about as you might expect in the run-up to a long-awaited reopening. As the crowd took its seats for a preview concert, technicians climbed ladders and handled minor crises. One of the venue’s co-owners, Paul Stache, consulted with an engineer on the in-room and livestream sound, while the other, Molly Sparrow Johnson, kept tabs on a wait staff that will be serving an expanded capacity of about 80 when it reopens on Thursday.

The band, meanwhile, couldn’t have looked more calm. On the newly widened bandstand, with red curtains as plush as the inside of a jewelry box as a backdrop, the pianist David Hazeltine and his longstanding trio — “the cats,” as Stache called them — beamed at each other, glad to be back. Their set, once it started, exemplified the sound of Smoke: warm, small-group jazz steeped in tradition but powered by in-the-moment invention. It’s inviting but uncompromising, sophisticated yet playful, the sound of a neighborhood jazz club with an international reputation.

“It’s always been a musician’s dream to play here, even when it was a hole in the wall,” Hazeltine said in an interview between sets. “From the beginning, it’s been set up as a music room above all else, which is actually rare for jazz clubs. Smoke’s always had the greatest sound system, and the owners care deeply about the music itself and the musicians’ welfare.”

The storied singer Mary Stallings, who has performed since the early 1960s, concurs. “Smoke is home,” she said in an interview in early July. “It’s got that real jazz room feeling that’s hard to describe. It reminds me of when I was a kid and how the clubs used to be.” Stallings, who will perform at Smoke from Aug. 11-14, added, “In a setting like that, when you’re making music, you feel like you can do anything.”

Stache and Frank Christopher founded Smoke in 1999 in the space at 2751 Broadway that had been Augie’s Jazz Bar, where the Berlin-born Stache had tended bar and waited tables upon moving to New York. “The inspiration at the time was to build a club that could fit a grand piano for Harold Mabern to play,” Stache said, referring to the bandleader and composer who would come to be associated with the club. Mabern died in 2019.

Smoke didn’t just give Mabern a place to play but also a place to record his final half-dozen albums for Smoke Sessions, the label Stache and Christopher founded in 2014. “It was really at the urging of the cats who play here,” Stache said. He always had recorded the music in his club, sharing it with the musicians.

Eventually, the sound quality was high enough that some of the musicians wanted to release the recordings. Smoke Sessions put out several of those live releases, recorded and produced by Stache, including Hazeltine’s 2014 “For All We Know album (“a work worthy of high praise,” said The New York City Jazz Record).

But, in the usual Smoke fashion, the enterprise soon became increasingly ambitious, as the label started booking studio time at Sear Sound in Hell’s Kitchen to document the work of several generations of top-tier musicians, including Renee Rosnes, Orrin Evans, Jimmy Cobb, Vincent Herring and Eddie Henderson. At a time when major labels tend to overlook mid- and late-career jazz players, Smoke Sessions has gone all in, with eight albums slated for 2023 release, including LPs from Al Foster, Wayne Escoffery and Nicholas Payton.

Independent jazz labels, like neighborhood jazz clubs, aren’t exactly a growth industry in 2022. While venues like Smalls and Zinc Bar have weathered the pandemic, scene mainstays like the Jazz Standard and 55 Bar have shuttered. At the same time, many enterprising musicians have increasingly taken to performing outside of the world of clubs with drink minimums, in restaurants, homes and venues like the Downtown Music Gallery, a record store, or pass-the-tip-jar bars like Brooklyn’s Bar Bayeux. The moment suggests the early days of the 1970s loft scene, which led to a vital creative flowering but offered legacy musicians like the ones booked at Smoke fewer opportunities for well-paying gigs.

Stache and Sparrow Johnson, who are married as well as being business partners, acknowledge that for the club and label to thrive, and for the players to get paid, the bar and restaurant must thrive, too. Hence the expansion.

The old Smoke was tight, so intimate that during a ballad, audiences might overhear more than they would wish of what was happening in the bathroom. During the pandemic shutdown, while Smoke experimented with sidewalk concerts and livestreaming, the co-owners finalized a deal with their landlord to take over the leases of two vacant spaces next door, a former law office and dry cleaner’s. Now, the bar and the bathrooms have been moved into a fully separate lounge area. The revamped music room offers audiences more personal space than many jazz clubs, and boasts sightlines clean enough that someone sitting at a back-row table can still see the pianist’s fingers.

Sparrow Johnson is excited about the lounge, a welcoming space designed to invite in people — like the many passers-by who peek into the storefront windows during a performance — who just want a drink or conversation but might feel intimidated by a jazz club or cover charges. She’s also moved by signs of Smoke’s established place in the neighborhood vibe of a club where it’s not unusual to see children in the audience. She said, “I had someone come to interview as a server recently, and he said, ‘I have really formative memories of my parents bringing me here.’ That’s what it’s all about. People have these memories, and also it’s an ongoing living thing that’s still happening.”

Those memories now stretch back decades — and are still works in progress. The act that Stache and Christopher booked for Smoke’s first opening, back in 1999, was the saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master George Coleman, who will also be headlining this week’s official reopening. This will be the third time that Coleman, now 87, has kicked off a new era for the club; in 2001, a Coleman group played the first Smoke sets after 9/11. “People were sitting there kind of broken, and he went up there and soothed people,” Stache recalled. “He wasn’t trying to cheer people up. It was more about we’re here together, and I’m going to play what I can for you.

That night Coleman and company did what musicians always do at Smoke: They played the room in its moment. Hazeltine and his trio did the same two Fridays back, offering an ebullient set of standards and originals. Stache has heard these musicians countless times over the years, at the club or in the studio, but still, near the end of the first set, he stood in the back of the club, filming a Hazeltine solo on his phone. Surely, as the co-owner, he could just catch it again on the livestream recording. But in the room, in that moment, he couldn’t help himself.

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