Old Friends & New Celebrate Smoke Club’s Reopening 


Smoke’s Paul Stache and Molly Sparrow Johnson

(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 this summer, 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, during the 7 p.m. set on Thursday, July 22, 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 Thursday’s set, masked servers hurried through a narrow doorway that separates the two rooms, delivering signature cocktails and menu creations, including a vegan, roasted-vegetable entrée, from Amanda Hallowell, executive chef. 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 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 in on the set’s third tune, “That’s All.” 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 renowned song interpreter Mary Stallings, who has graced the Smoke bandstand as a leader for a number of years, and who was slated to perform in August. “There has never been a more important time for the enjoyment of music, for the musicians as well as for the listeners.” DB

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On Sale Now
September 2023
Kris Davis
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