Smalls Jazz Club
183 West 10th street
10014 - New York
Interview with Spike Wilner at "The Small" March 2012
by Achille Brunazzi
In March 2012 during a trip
to New York City we have had the chance to attend
the Jimmy Greene's gig at "The
Smalls" Jazz Club down the Greenwich Village. Founded in
1994 by the versatile fellow Mitchell Borden,
who was also a violinist besides being a former navy submariner, "The
Smalls" became soon one the most relevant jazz music community places
in New York City: the young artists – such as
Jeremy Pelt, Mark Turner, Chris Potter and many others - brought
their instruments and jammed until late night while the patrons for few dollars
had their own beers and could attend the concerts as much as they wished. In
2002 Mitchell Borden went to bankrupt because
of the dramatic rent increase due to the September 11th
events: Borden couldn't not afford any longer to prioritize art to business and
Smalls" closed until 2004. In the
same year pianist and philanthropist Spike Wilner took over the club along
with a full liquor license. Wilner renovated "The
Smalls" keeping its original mission: support the new generation of
musicians and spread the legacy of jazz music not only in
New York City but also around the world; every
concert at "The
Smalls" is recorded and archived into the website library. Spike Wilner
made this tiny basement – located at 183 West 10th
Street of Greenwich Village in New York City - an internationally known place among
all jazz musicians and lovers. Both the uniqueness of "The
Smalls" and its mentor inspired us to interview Spike Wilner who has
introduced himself and has given his view on music, art and life.
A brief introduction of yourself
and family background
I was born in Manhattan. My father is a scientist (hemeotologist) and my mother
a psychotherapist. My grandmother was a great painter in the Abstract Impressonist
style. My great, great, great, great, great grandfather was a great rabbi and a
Was there anyone in your family interested in music?
My father had a strong taste for contemporary classical music – Shostakovich, Ravel,
When and how did you get interest in music?
I started very young at the piano. My mother had a spinet in our house and got me
piano lessons with the neighborhood piano teacher. She made me practice everyday
for many years. Without my mother I would have never learned how to play.
During your studies, who among the piano players and more
generally musicians hit your attention My first passion was ragtime music. I remember I watched a show on television
about Scott Joplin and it made me want to play. I even bought a bowler hat
(which I thought that all piano players wore). I love ragtime music to this day
and continue to play Scott Joplin's music. I later became introduced to modern jazz
but I loved Art Tatum, Willie The Lion Smith, James P. Johnson,
Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines, Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan,
Jamal, Ray Bryant, Sonny Clark,
Why did you want become a jazz piano player?
There was a jazz band in my high-school with some very talented musicians who are
professionals today and my friends. I was inspired to learn this music.
Does jazz reflects at best your personality and why?
I believe I am finally becoming myself as a jazz artist. When you are a student
you learn to assimilate the styles of others. When you become a master you assimilate
yourself. Tony Bennett told me once – "Spike, if you want to be a genius,
just be yourself because every person is original." A very deep thing that I
think about all the time.
Which qualities would you like your band members have?
My favorite musicians are the ones where I don't have to tell them what to do or
what I want. I don't even have to tell them what tune I'm going to play, I just
start playing and they play perfectly. Pure intuition. Jazz is a music of communication.
No need for words – just musical gestures. Great jazz musicians don't need cues
or charts. Real jazz is the spontaneous moment of creation.
Jazz was categorized into be-bop and then hard-bop, free
jazz or avant-garde, post-bop etc, do you follow any of them? Or do you think that
music is just one: good or bad?
Well, everybody puts things into categories. I am a
New York City boy. New York is about
be-bop – that's the real jazz musical tradition of New
York. I was a student of Barry Harris. But I think that the strict
orthodoxy of a style can conflict with finding yourself. I also had the opportunity
to play (just a couple of sessions) with
Coleman who I revere and love. I love ragtime, stride, bebop, hardbop,
free jazz. What I don't like is "modern" jazz where there is no swing or feeling.
The foundation of jazz is the blues and romance and joy. Without those elements,
no jazz. I don't want to hear improvised rock music or improvised latin music. Jazz
is a feeling – it's not vague.
Quote your favorite jazz musicians all-time and why you
like them more than others?
My favorite jazz musician is
He's the most spontaneous, fresh, funny, swinging, exploratory, traditional. He
is the greatest living jazz musician in my mind.
Do you find any difference between the European jazz and
the rest around the world above all in US?
Like I said, real jazz is the blues and swing. European musicians tend to forget
the origins of this music – which is African American culture. You have to really
either be from that culture or assimilate it fully into your own life and attitude
if you want to play jazz correctly. Remember, improvising is not jazz. Jazz is a
feeling. Improvising is improvising. Without the jazz feeling you don't have jazz.
I don't care what you call it.
Which kind of clubs you attended and liked more in NYC?
My favorite club was the Village Gate. It was a big family owned club with
three floors. Comedy and great jazz and musicals and concerts. The feeling there
was fantastic. Full of people and friends. It's how I always remember the jazz scene
of New York. My other favorite club was Bradley's
which was a sophisticated real New York bar
where all the musicians hung out. You would see
at the bar hanging with Bobby Hutcherson and be listening to
It was so heavy. Of course, the best club now in New
York is Smalls.
It's one of only two or three clubs that still have the authentic feeling of a
New York jazz club.
Please tell me the first time your heard about "The Smalls".
first time I heard about Smalls
was from Grant Stewart who got a call about this new club opening up. I started
playing there within the first few months. I became a part of the fabric of the
club and quite close to the man who created the club, Mitch Borden. I eventually,
through the crazy workings of fate, had the opportunity to buy the club and become
a partner. Now I run the place with Mitch and we are dedicated to the spirit of
Why did you decide to become a "business-man" by managing
"The Smalls". Did you change anything into the club since your arrival?
It was a decision of necessity. The club was for sale. I knew that if I didn't step
in the club would be finished and I would lose my gig. I always need to have a place
to play my music. This led me to managing the club. I don't think I am a business
man because I don't care about money. I care about music and Smalls
and New York City.
When I was down the Village for the Jimmy Greene gig, I
felt some very special vibes and the sound was unique. Why are they so specials
like the Vanguard for example?
We are very similar to the Vanguard. We are underground and almost the same configuration.
Low ceilings. The acoustics are perfect at Smalls.
We love to play without amplification. Just pure sound.
You created a label "The Smalls Live"; this is a very courageous
SmallsLIVE came from my need to document the great music that is being created at
With SmallsLIVE I buy the master from the artist. I feel like I am buying a piece
of art for my collection. Now we have 27 titles in the catalog. I really love this
label and think it will be of great historical importance one day.
You allowed a larger audience to be aware of what's going
on at The Smalls by archiving the audio of the gigs; nobody did that before, do
you think music should be an affordable "product" so that you published the audio
of the concerts?
I am an archivist. Like a librarian. I like to document all of the music and make
sure all of the artists get the credit where they deserve it. The Smalls Audio Archive
is a unique document. We have recorded nearly 5 years of music. 3 bands a night,
7 nights a week. It's an incredible resource for students and fans. One day, the
historians will be able to understand the work we did here.
The Smalls is one of the places where you can jam until
late night. Not many places in NYC do that. May you tell me why? Smalls
is a musical community for the artists that make the music and the people who are
inspired by it. Many people like to stay out late and to listen to music. Why should
you go to bed at 10PM? Life is lived at all hours. Also, music is best late at night.
All musicians know this. It is the holy time – the time to communicate with God
or to make love. It is sacred.
Some people says the NYC declined a little musically; do
you think is true?
I think the entire world has declined spiritually. This is a very hard time for
artists and for free thinkers. We are very, very oppressed by the current regime.
This is world-wide. People are obsessed with money. They forget that the true nature
of life is in the intangible good moments – love, laughter. Making peaceful gestures
with the people around them who are their brothers and sisters. Not war. Music is
about love. Why are we in a decline? I cannot say. But I encourage all of the people
to be on the side of good and love. We cannot lose.
What's future of jazz?
The future is non-existent. The past is non-existent. All that exists is the ever-unfolding
moment. Each action we take defines the next. The future of jazz? It is here!