Here’s my Thank You note to Smalls Jazz Club, eh

Smalls Jazz Club livestreams gigs by NYC based jazz artists every day. During the pandemic, they have been a lifesaver for me and countless others. Here is my Smalls story, my Thank You note to the jazz club for everything they have done, and everything they continue to do for artists, patrons, and international voyeurs such as myself.

As a kid growing up in suburban Canada, my mother fed me a steady musical diet of The Beatles, 70s one-hit wonders, and Charley Pride. In my mind, jazz had something to do with women exercising in leotards on TV, and “Monk” was the nickname of stock car driver Lou Lazzaro, not the last name of the jazz icon.

A beat icon introduced me to jazz

Luckily, one thing led to another though, and eventually Jack Kerouac introduced me to the idea of jazz clubs. When you’re young, music and that sort of writing can really have an impression, and I was all-in. I was already quite passionate about music, and I think I must have recounted Kerouac’s stories as if they were my own.

Maybe a part of me really did believe that those stories revolving around wild jazz were mine. But even if they were indeed my memories, I knew they were just that, memories. They were impossible to duplicate, no matter how much time, money, or fortune I would ever have.

But then, EUREKA! I found out about Smalls Jazz Club. I even managed to visit once in person for a Saturday afternoon jam session. It wasn’t as good as the “memories” that Kerouac had provided me with and I made my own. It was better. Smalls is named Smalls because it is physically very small. It’s also a basement in the West Village, so you are jammed in if you are lucky enough to get in at all.

Forget Pearl Jam – a Smalls jam is heaven

Every seat in the club was accounted for when we visited, and then some. At stage right musicians queued up, waiting for their chance, their moment in the Smalls light. My friend Tyler and I kept count of how many pianists performed, how many drummers, and how many bass players, but eventually lost count as all tallies went into double digits. I recall an employee or two taking part, and I believe a bartender played a few songs on piano.

Saying “We might be the only two people in here not to play” turned out to be prophetic. It really is a jazz community at Smalls, more tightly knit than the hardcore punk communities of the 80s and most assuredly more positive.

I gotta say it again: Being at Smalls in person was better than visiting a 50’s jazz club vicariously through Kerouac‘s words.

I’m listening to Nicole Glover Trio playing live at Smalls as I write, and once again I am back there, physically IN the pages of Kerouac’s prose. I’m also back inside Smalls, even though their streaming shows are audience free. I really love the music Nicole, Daniel Duke, and Nic Cacioppo create together. Somebody else can talk about the technical merits of the playing, but for me there is a life-affirming energy in the art they create, a sense of fun, intrigue, adventure, possibilities…

Canada may be receiving some vaccines from the US thanks to the Biden Administration, but for me, music from Smalls is even more appreciated!

Nicole Glover at Smalls
photo of Nicole Glover by William Brown

All is fair in jazz and ribs, right?

I keep my windows open during the summer, and great music sounds even better with a little bit of volume. Needless to say, midtown Toronto received an education in the NYC jazz community during the summer and fall of 2020, all thanks to Smalls and streaming.

My neighbours and I also had a few jam Smalls-inspired jam sessions in my hood last summer. At the West Village club, musicians have “conversations” with each other by trading licks. North of the border we put our own twist on an artistic conversation. The people next door sent the delicious smell of barbeque my way, and I responded by sending back the sweet sounds of jazz artists performing at Smalls.

So many artists to check out at Smalls, so little time

I was introduced to so many outstanding jazz musicians via Smalls since we were all locked down together that it is impossible to name them all. Here’s how I was introduced to a few though.

On a warm, lazy Sunday afternoon in the late summer of 2020, I fell in Love with Lucy again thanks to Smalls. Not with Ms. Ball, but with vocalist Lucy Yeghiazaryan. She has a voice that is better than sublime, be sure to treat yourself to some listens of her music.

Where was I when I first heard Omer Avital?
At Smalls, of course!

I absolutely must mention Omer Avital though. I “met” him through Smalls, of course. His life story and accomplishments are bigger than words, and his music moves me like hardly any other music does or ever has. His song Small Time Shit is a few years old now, but it’s the best “new” song I’ve heard in ages.

Omer Avital at Smalls
Omer Avital at Smalls

First Smalls took Manhattan, then they took Detroit (via Toronto)

Last summer my friend Jamey in Detroit mentioned a NY Times article that celebrated some of the great work Melissa Aldana is doing around NYC during the pandemic to keep artists spirits and chops up. Naturally I was already familiar with Aldana, having had seen her perform at Smalls via livestream. And as luck would have it, I’d seen her as part of the Omer Avital Septet.

So, there you have it. Somehow a basement jazz club in Gotham casts a shadow at least as far west as Motown. The magic of music, the magic of Smalls.

Now it is your turn to visit Smalls
~It’s safe and easy to do, too~

Go to Smalls in NYC if you ever get the chance once we get back to normal. In the meantime, definitely make it a point to check out some of their livestreams, whether it is live on Facebook or on their website. Smalls also has a YouTube channel that is well worth subscribing to. See you there!

Thank you, Smalls.

*photo of Smalls Jazz Club by Michelle Watt

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