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Smoke Jazz Club reopens after its pandemic pause, bigger and better

George Coleman portrait at Smoke
Nate Chinen
/
WBGO
A portrait of tenor saxophonist George Coleman, the first artist ever booked at Smoke, and the first to play its reopening. (Original photograph by Dave Kaufman.)

The last time musicians played for an audience inside Smoke Jazz Club, on Broadway at 106th Street, it was mid-March of 2020. Kevin Hays was on piano, Ron Carter was on bass, and Al Foster was on drums. “At the time,” says Smoke’s founder, Paul Stache, “it was clear that there was a pretty serious virus circling around the world. And looking at the band — Ron is in his 80s, Al is almost 80 — we were all sort of holding our breath. But we got through the weekend, and fortunately nobody got sick.”

Then New York went into lockdown, and venues across the city went dark. Every day, as weeks turned into months, Stache would go check on the club, where Carter’s bass amp and Foster’s drums and cymbals were still onstage. “It was eerily quiet,” he recalls. “And I kept thinking, I wonder if this was the last show we’re ever going to do in here?”

Today, we can officially perish the thought, as Smoke Jazz Club announces its grand reopening. The club will welcome NEA Jazz Master and tenor saxophonist George Coleman with his quartet, plus guest guitarist Peter Bernstein, from Thursday, July 21 through Sunday, July 24. (Buy tickets here.)

Paul Stache and Molly Sparrow Johnson
Nate Chinen
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WBGO
Paul Stache and Molly Sparrow Johnson, the co-owners of Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, pictured in May 2022.

More than a return to form, the engagement will serve as an unveiling for Smoke’s substantial and long-awaited renovation. One afternoon last week, Stache and Molly Sparrow Johnson — the husband-and-wife co-owners of the club — sat at a table not far from the stage, which is almost 40 square feet larger than it used to be. The room itself, with its exposed brick walls and pressed-tin ceiling, felt distinctly roomier; a long banquette has replaced the old bar, which now resides in a separate, adjacent lounge. Seating capacity has roughly doubled.

“The whole point initially was to create a room that was a little bit more pandemic-proof,” said Stache. “Where the stage is big enough that a trio or quartet could play without literally being elbow-to-elbow, in a room that is set up in a way that we could split the tables and reduce capacity, if we have to. With a larger kitchen where our staff can work more safely, and a ventilation system that brings in and circulates fresh air.”

During my walk-through, contractors had their hands full on what is still an active work site; most surfaces in the soon-to-be lounge were covered with a layer of construction dust. But the improvements to the venue — that bigger stage, that standalone bar, the relocation of bathroom and kitchen access, the greatly expanded kitchen itself — were readily apparent to someone who has been a patron from the start, 23 years ago. That it took the stress test of a pandemic to put those improvements into place is just, as they say, one of those things.

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When Smoke Jazz & Supper Club first opened its doors, on April 9, 1999, it was understood as a welcome new addition to the New York jazz ecology — but also something of a sequel. For more than 20 years, beginning in the mid-1970s, the room had been known as Augie’s Jazz Bar, a lovably scruffy neighborhood dive. (Bernstein was among the musicians who cut their teeth there.)
Stache, who grew up in Berlin, Germany, stumbled into the place on the first night of a New York City visit in ‘92, and never recovered. “Junior Cook and Cecil Payne were in here,” he says, “and I can’t think of a more special introduction to New York. The place was packed to the rafters, and there was a thick layer of smoke hanging about eight feet up in the middle of the room. The music was just unbelievable.”

He pestered the namesake owner of Augie’s, Augusto Cuartas, for whatever job he could get, starting out as a dishwasher and eventually becoming a bartender before moving on. When Augie’s closed, suddenly, in ’98, Stache approached the landlord and made arrangements to pay off the back rent, taking over the lease. Smoke made its mark as a distinctly more grown-up successor to Augie’s, while preserving the scale of the place. Its opening act was the George Coleman Quartet, featuring Harold Mabern.

Smoke Jazz Club
Jimmy Katz
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As Stache recalls, Coleman also reopened the club after the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — one of a few major disruptive events that Smoke has weathered over the years. Our COVID age is unique for a number of reasons, of course. One being the fact that it came on so abruptly and unilaterally, at least in New York, and has been so fitful and uneven in its recovery.

Like some other prominent jazz clubs, Smoke pivoted to video during the pandemic: perhaps you recall the Smoke Screens stream, featuring bands (scrupulously masked, and later masked and vaxxed) playing for the cameras in an empty room. Some of these yielded lasting documents; Orrin Evans made an album for the affiliated Smoke Sessions label, The Magic of Now, out of a livestream gig. Hays turned one of his livestreams, with bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart, into a Smoke Sessions release called All Things Are. (I wrote the liner notes.)

For a while, in the summer of 2020, Smoke also functioned as a sidewalk café, with bands setting up just inside the open windows facing Broadway. Around that time, Stache and Johnson sat down with an architect friend to painstakingly assess the club’s floor plan and dimensions, in light of social distancing guidelines that had been issued. “We came to the conclusion that 14 people could be in this room,” Johnson says. “And we just had this moment of realizing this is not going to work. And I don't know if it will ever work again. That’s when it became really clear that these two spaces next door had to become part of Smoke. There was no other way to survive here in this space otherwise.”

Those two spaces next door were formerly a law office and a dry cleaner, but both had been vacant for years — since well before COVID. Smoke's landlord had already favorably entertained the idea of having Stache and Johnson take over the lease. Now, after a period of pandemic leniency with the rent, that expansion finally had a burning sense of purpose.

“Over the years of being in this tiny space, we’ve always had an idea that maybe we should be bigger — but it was one of the things that we kind of dreamt about: Maybe this is a good idea, maybe it’s not,” says Stache. “When the pandemic came, it sort of became a necessity. It was not really a choice anymore.”

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Jazz clubs have struggled, as have jazz musicians, as a result of pandemic pressures. Some, like Jazz Standard at the end of 2020 and the 55 Bar just last month, closed their doors for the foreseeable future. So the return of Smoke is good news for the New York scene, especially among devotees of the swinging modern jazz mainstream. Its renovated form represents good news of a different sort.

Harold Mabern portrait at Smoke
Nate Chinen
/
WBGO
A portrait of pianist Harold Mabern on a banquette at Smoke, in May 2022.

The old Smoke had a few quirks that added character but detracted from a listening experience. A load-bearing pole, for instance, that bisected a part of the stage — now situated more to the side. The bathroom is no longer next to the stage, meaning that no one will ever again disrupt a bass solo, or a ballad, with the sound of a flushing toilet. The swinging kitchen door, with its clattering noise and flood of light, is also a thing of the past.

“I am really excited about having a designated listening room,” says Johnson, “built to specifications for optimal sound, with a brand-new sound system from Meyer.”

The lounge next door is another substantive improvement. “It will an inviting way to welcome people in,” Johnson adds. “Like, ‘Come in and have a drink while you wait,’ instead of ‘Please stand under the scaffolding while you wait.’ And there have always been people in the neighborhood who are like: ‘I love your space. I just want to come in and have a drink.’ And I like the fact that we can do that now; we can have those people in. At the end of the day, it's about hosting people and making our patrons happy.”

Getting there has taken considerably longer than the Smoke team anticipated. During the depths of the pandemic, demolition permits came easily; building permits, not so much. What usually took a few weeks ended up taking four or five months. So the club was stripped down to the studs, unsuitable even for a livestream, and caught in limbo.

“Then somehow the building permit came through, and we had a situation where all of the contractors we had lined up were obviously on other jobs,” says Stache. “So we had to start from scratch. And then sourcing steel was an issue. So it was a combination of dealing with supply-chain issues and a city bureaucracy that was not really moving.”

Now that the reopening is around the corner, Smoke is preparing for the pace to pick up. After Coleman, it will feature the Bobby Watson Quartet (July 28-31); Louis Hayes & The Cannonball Legacy Band (Aug. 4-7); Mary Stallings (Aug. 11-14); and the Mike LeDonne Sextet (Aug. 18-21).

The club’s customary Charlie Parker birthday tribute will be led by Rudresh Mahanthappa, with his trio (Aug. 25-28). Then come the Al Foster Quintet, in a Smoke Sessions album-release celebration (Sept. 1-4); the Eddie Henderson Quintet (Sept. 8-11); the Vijay Iyer Trio (Sept. 15-18); and the collective One For All (Sept. 22-25).

During that recent visit, a framed portrait of Coleman sat on one of the club banquettes. In this room, it functioned as both a respectful celebration of the past and a tantalizing promise for the future.

For more information about the reopening of Smoke, visit its website.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.