The World According to Keitho

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Smalls one last time

Posted by keithosaunders on July 13, 2010

My time in New York City can now be measured in weeks.  Although we do not have a definite departure date it is safe to assume that we are under  four weeks away from leaving.  We have yet to rent our apartment which, of course, is a source of great stress.  We are planning trading in our Subaru and leasing a bigger vehicle for the cross-country trip.  There will be four humans and one dog and we would like to minimize the sardine effect as much as possible.  Our oldest boy will not be travelling with us.  Instead he will fly out with a friend and spend some time in San Francisco at his friend’s aunt’s house.   

I first played at the jazz club Small’s with the HardBop Quintet shortly after it opened in 1993.  I remember going down to west 10th st to talk with the owner, Mitch Borden.  When I  met Mitch he was sitting outside on a chair playing violin.  He invited me downstairs to play for him and I remember we played together, though I can’t remember what we played.

The first time we played at Smalls there were just a few people in the audience but Mitch hired us back for the next month and we soon became part of the rotation, playing several times a year.  Gradually the business built up until it became unusual for the club not to be crowded.

In the early days Smalls had no bar and the chairs were arranged haphazardly throughout the basement club.  There were various couches and comfy chairs placed in nooks and crannys for people to plop down in.  For a small venue it was amazing how many such corners it had.  There were even secret alcoves and storage areas that actually served as crash pads — makeshift apartments — for down out musicians.  There was a heavy steel door in the back — it looked like an entrance to a supermarket freezer — which opened into one such storage area that served as a practice room.  It actually contained an upright piano. 

By 1995 Small’s had caught on and was crowded most every night — packed with college students, serious young musicians, and jazz fans.  It became a nurturing ground for young musicians, as well as a home base to some of the older masters, such as Jimmy Lovelace, Frank Hewitt, and Harry Whitaker.

There were times when the musicians, audience, and even the club itself could have an attitude.  Almost always, however, you could hear a pin drop during the sets.  This set it apart from many smaller jazz spots in which conversation was not discouraged.  

Smalls was a serious place in the best sense of the word.  You had young lions desperate to be heard, but with the passion to hang out night after night until five or six in the morning, learning, absorbing, and living jazz.  Not one of them was less than 100 percent committed to the music. 

In 2007, after Small’s had been closed for  a couple of years, the pianist Spike Wilner, and his partner, Lee Kostrinsky, bought Small’s and reopened it.  They remodeled it and added a full bar complete with tap beer.  They hired a much more diverse group of musicians — Mitch was partial to straight ahead bebop — but the standard of playing remains as  high as ever.  In my opinion it is, hands down, the best club in New York City.

 All of this is a long preamble to saying that I have played my final weekend at Smalls as a New York City musician.  If I play there again it will be as a Californian on tour, or on a visit.  I worked with the Richie Vitale Quintet, a group I have had the pleasure of playing with for almost ten years.  We had a great gig and the audiences were generous and appreciative.  It was fitting that towards the end of the final set of the weekend Richie called That’s All.  I thought it would be the last tune of the night but he ended with a medium tempo I Got Rhythm.  I wanted to scream “No!  You’re ruining the poetry!”  Instead I held my tongue. 

It’s going to take a lifetime to find a club in which I feel as home at, and as connected to.  I may never find one.

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7 Responses to “Smalls one last time”

  1. Spike Wilner said

    Keith: No need for a eulogy! You’re not dead yet… Thanks for this beautiful tribute. You’ll always be a part of the Smalls family. What’s more, you’ll be back to play again and again. I’m sure.

    Spiker

  2. artmodel said

    I’ve always loved Smalls. One of the best places to hear jazz in NY and your description is perfect. This is a great post and very touching tribute. You made me tear up a little, keith! Sorry that you’re leaving. But at least you’re taking such rich memories with you 🙂

    Claudia

    • Claudia, than you for stopping by and for leaving that heartfelt comment. You know, I was meaning to let you know I was playing at Small’s last weekend but with all of the apartment stuff I was going through I forgot. I am playing a trio gig at Sofia’s on 46th st next Friday the 23rd. (my second or third last NYC gig) I’ll try to remember to send a reminder with info.

  3. zapple100 said

    I worked in Manhattan for 21 years. I used to go the The West Village a lot and been to lots of concerts at The Bottom Line.
    I was just in Washington Square Park a couple of weeks ago. They had this really good Jazz band playing. We must have sat and watch them for over 2 hours straight.
    Nice blog. I added you to my blog list.

  4. zapple100 said

    I live on Long Island. Took the LIRR into the city.

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