Old Friends, New Listeners Celebrate Smoke’s Grand Reopening 

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Performing at the newly reopened Smoke Jazz Club in New York, from left: Julius Rodriguez, Gerald Cannon, Eddie Henderson, Melissa Aldana and Joe Farnsworth

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

Thursdays have always set the vibe for weekends at Smoke. The first of a four-night run for headliners, Thursday would serve as a point of entry and rumination. Bandstand energy was hypnotic. Artists would intimate a shared sound they’d hone and stretch out over the next few nights. At the club’s grand reopening last month, Thursday felt no different.

Blocks from the 103rd Street stop on the 1 train, the legendary New York space still presides over its Upper West Side neighborhood as the local spot for live music and late nights. After enduring a more than two-year COVID hiatus from Smoke’s in-person club performances, Thursday’s eager patrons entered a renovated space that includes a dining room surrounding a larger bandstand and a separate lounge area with the club’s century-old marble-top bar as its centerpiece. Where the same bar once held artists and listeners in tight pockets, pressed against a modest stage and two tiny restrooms, neatly arranged dinner tables now flank the wall. The ADA-compliant front entrance now complements a second entrance through the lounge, and serves as an impromptu perch for sound engineering and a few attentive standing-room listeners.

Anyone can gather in the lounge for dinner, snacks or drinks, but only ticket holders may enter the dining area where artists perform. During the 7 p.m. set on Thursday, July 22, masked servers hurried through a narrow doorway that separates the two rooms, delivering signature cocktails and menu creations, including a roasted vegetable entrée, from renowned Executive Chef Amanda Hallowell. Even the restrooms felt different. With plenty of space to turn around, they feature posted signs of the times: “No Smoking No Vaping.”

But amid the newness, the savory chaos of an opening night, Smoke felt the same as it ever was. Maître d’ Tommy Maxwell glided through the club, joking with artists and longtime patrons, reviving the staff and keeping items in order. At the window end of the bar, George Coleman’s familiar silhouette reclined in a red leather barstool as the NEA Jazz Master talked down the changes for a tune’s unusual second ending. Artists mixed with listeners. The vibe resettled.

When Smoke opened in 1999, Coleman performed the inaugural set alongside the late legendary pianist Harold Mabern, who would become a permanent and friendly fixture at the bar, sharing stories with artists and listeners of mixed generations. On reopening night — and through the weekend — Coleman’s band featured on drums Joe Farnsworth, who also performed on opening night with Coleman and Mabern, Peter Washington on bass, Davis Whitfield on piano and special guest Pete Bernstein on guitar.

Each artist shares a unique connection to Smoke. At 87, Coleman has had some time to reflect on how important the club has been to the entire community over the years. One event in particular stands out in his memory. “On the weekend of 9/11, we were scheduled to play and there was a lot of debate as to what we should do,” he said. “We all decided that New Yorkers needed something to lift their spirits, and so we agreed to play that weekend even if one person was in the audience. As fate would have it, the club was completely packed the whole weekend. … Though sad and mourning, we would not be broken or let the spirits of those lost be tarnished by such a cowardly act.”

The band opened as a quartet before Whitfield joined them on the set’s third tune “That’s All.” A couple listeners seemed to recognize the intro vamp, but when Coleman began playing the melody for “This I Dig of You,” a wave of audible delight swept the room. Eruptive applause followed every solo. Energy from the bandstand carried into the lounge, where a few bar goers peered into the dining room. By the time the set broke, both rooms were packed with chattering patrons.

Owners and business partners Paul Stache and Molly Sparrow Johnson have always considered Smoke “a club for jazz lovers run by jazz lovers.” The spouses’ vision for its renovation emerged out of the need — and genuine desire — to create a space that would adhere to occupancy mandates and safety protocol for artists, staff and patrons, in the wake of the pandemic. The newly unveiled expansion meets that need. They acquired the original club’s two adjacent storefronts, creating a more comfortable hang while preserving a storied charm that has enchanted and uplifted an entire community for more than 20 years.

“I am so happy that Smoke Jazz Club will be able to once again add to the music of the New York City night air — music that has been so sorely missed,” said singer and song interpreter Mary Stallings, who has graced the Smoke bandstand as a leader for a number of years, and who’s slated to perform Aug. 11–14. “There has never been a more important time for the enjoyment of music, for the musicians as well as for the listeners. … We have been through a traumatic experience, but the music stayed on with Smoke Jazz in our hearts. … I remember how welcoming [Paul and Molly] were at my first date at the club. lt will be like being back home when l’m there with them and with my fans [this month].”

For now, listeners can enjoy live music and streaming performances from such celebrated headliners as Louis Hayes, Al Foster, Vijay Iyer, Renee Rosnes, Nicholas Payton, One For All and other acclaimed acts Thursdays through Sundays during the fall season and after the new year. Among other rising stars of the younger generation, Melissa Aldana and Nicole Glover are rumored to be leading bands in the coming seasons, as well, though bookings have yet to be confirmed. Wednesday nights will feature “midweek” performances, but plans for early-in-the-week hits and late sessions with emerging and established artists remain in the works. And the club’s GRAMMY-nominated record label, Smoke Sessions, will resume Live at Smoke recordings in addition to its studio releases.

In the resonant words of George Coleman, Smoke Jazz Club has returned once again to lift local spirits at a time of lasting trauma and uncertainty: “Smoke has always been a great home for musicians to play great music, and for New Yorkers to see and hear great music.” DB



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