Jazzitalia - Interview with Spike Wilner at 'The Small'
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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 the "The 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 mystic.

Was there anyone in your family interested in music?
My father had a strong taste for contemporary classical music – Shostakovich, Ravel, Gershwin...

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, Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal, Ray Bryant, Sonny Clark, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock.

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 Ornette 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 Sonny Rollins. 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 McCoy Tyner at the bar hanging with Bobby Hutcherson and be listening to Kenny Barron. 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".
The 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 this music.

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 project...
SmallsLIVE came from my need to document the great music that is being created at Smalls. 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!

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