Smalls Jazz Club, emblem of perseverance in the event of a pandemic, still shifts gears

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Through all the ups and downs of the coronavirus crisis, no independent music venue has been more of an indicator than Smalls Jazz Club. And his experience over the past week reveals just how difficult the situation continues to be, even with an ongoing vaccine rollout and new domestic capacity guidelines in effect for New York City.

Just over a year ago, Smalls closed as part of a widespread closure of bars and restaurants – a hallmark of the city’s early response to the coronavirus, which Spike Wilner, owner of Smalls , contracted in time.

By mid-May, Wilner had recovered and launched a new phase for the club, including nonprofit status for the SmallsLIVE Foundation and an individual sponsorship program, the Get the Cats Working Fund. Again ”. “I think it’s just a matter of hanging on, hanging on,” he said in an email newsletter. “To survive, we have to be stubborn.”

And tenacity is precisely the trait Smalls embodied in the months that followed. Last June, the club started featuring groups in a daily livestream, each funded by a sponsor. There is a long tradition of live club webcasts – I wrote about this for the first time in 2013 – but in other ways it was new ground. The SmallsLIVE Foundation benefited from a one-time donation of $ 25,000 from Billy Joel, leveraging individual donations and support from a foundation.

courtesy of the artist

The Mike Moreno Quartet performing a Smalls Jazz Club livestream in July 2020.

Last fall, Wilner began opening the doors of Smalls to an extremely limited in-person audience, in accordance with New York State capacity guidelines. “A lot of people are too scared to come and a lot of musicians have refused to come,” he wrote in a November newsletter. “We understand, sure, but we have to keep going one way or another. Those who have chosen to come to the club to play or listen have been overwhelmed by the need to play or hear our music.”

Greg Bryant, whose feature “In the Club” airs on Jazz After Hours at WBGO, attended a show at Smalls last October. He also caught Wilner’s trio at Mezzrow, a companion club, earlier this month. “Me included, there were only six people at each show,” Bryant recalls in an email. “Everyone was masked that I met, our temperatures were checked and we were all at a safe distance. I fully understand that not everyone feels safe at this time, but I also understand that the community of listeners and musicians need each other. We need a safe space to test the waters and put the stage back into action. Smalls had taken on this burden and I felt comfortable and renewed in my experience there. “

Last week, an anonymous complaint to the State Liquor Authority shut down Smalls’ operations. This was a restriction imposed by SLA decreeing that live music in any establishment must be offered in addition to the catering service. A place that advertises music or sells tickets to an event breaks this rule.

And while a state judge has declared the ban on paid live events “not only excessive but also irrational”, it is still relevant in New York, at least for now. “Please note that until April 2,” a recent statement from SLA read, “only incidental music is permitted. This means advertised and / or paid shows are not permitted. Music must be incidental to the culinary experience and not to the draw itself. ”

On April 2, the statement added, “live entertainment will resume under specific and forthcoming DOH guidelines.”

In an email distributed Saturday, Wilner wrote that Inspector SLA insisted on listing Smalls as a restaurant, despite his tavern license and no kitchen. At an SLA committee meeting, the club avoided termination by a two-to-one vote. “I don’t know why we were spared,” Wilner wrote, “but I would like to believe that they knew who we were and didn’t want to shut down a cultural institution. We will always get fined and probably significantly, but Smalls will live to see another day. “

In fact, the Smalls livestream picks up tonight, with the Ari Hoenig Trio. The club will once again feature groups in an empty room, at least until the new guidelines are announced on April 2.

Baby Calendar March 22

For more information about Smalls, including archived live broadcasts and sponsorship opportunities, visit the SmallsLIVE Foundation.

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