Based on the Upper West Side of New York, Smoke Jazz Club has been a fixture on the international scene for more than 20 years now.
When covid hit, husband-and-wife co-owners Paul Stache and Molly Sparrow Johnson took the opportunity to renovate the venue, bringing the capacity up from 75 people to a spacious bar and lounge with a dedicated room for concerts that can accommodate up to 125 people.
The overhaul was not just an expansion, but the revival of a jazz institution that is a successor to the former Augie’s Jazz Bar, where Stache worked as a bartender before taking over the lease when the venue, founded in 1976, closed in 1998.
Now a year on from the grand reopening, we caught up with co-owner Paul Stache to talk about the ins-and-outs of running a jazz club in New York…
Smoke was voted #1 Jazz Club in New York City” by Secret NYC. What makes a great jazz club experience?
It’s always an honor to get voted number one of course and perhaps that question is better answered by the voters but it’s first and foremost about the music.
We have been incredibly fortunate to have been able to present some of the world’s greatest artists of this music, and we can’t be more grateful for that!
We also feel that the patrons who come to Smoke deserve an overall positive experience with great food, atmosphere and in a friendly and welcoming environment.
That doesn’t mean we always get it right but we make a serious effort to get it right most of the time. Hopefully people recognize that.
Could you highlight a couple of key events since its formation in 1999 which helped SMOKE achieve its current status as one of New York City’s premier live music venues?
The one thing that stands out the most, and we talk about it all the time, is the fact the George Coleman Quartet with Harold Mabern was the opening band for Smoke back in April of 1999.
It set the bar so high on a musical level, there was no turning back.
Mr Coleman and Mr Mabern were also the band that reopened Smoke after a brief shut down after 9/11. It was one of the most emotional concerts we ever hosted.
While Mr Mabern unfortunately is no longer with us, we were thrilled to have George Coleman’s Quartet re-open the club once again after the pandemic shut down and the renovation that followed.
To hear music again in these four walls after so much time went by and to have it be Big George was quite special and we will never forget!
Despite its relatively small capacity, Smoke has balanced booking rising stars with big name artists. How do you approach the building of a programme?
It’s important to find the right balance and that’s not always easy. So many incredible legacy artists, jazz legends still live in this city and NY audiences are rightfully very demanding, because they are exposed to so much great music.
Drummer Joe Farnsworth (who has been very important for Smoke since the beginning) and I talk about this all the time. It’s ideally about putting multi generational bands together. You end up presenting ensembles that don’t always play together.
There are some risks with that, of course, but when it works it’s really exciting and rewarding and fresh. And keeping it fresh and not viewing jazz as museum piece that needs to be “saved” is something we feel very strongly about.
What’s the #1 thing you wish every artist knew before sending you an email looking for a gig?
Well, first of all we know that getting a gig in NY is hard and that cats feel they have to be persistent to get a foot in the door.
On the flip side I also think that most artists understand that we get dozens of booking emails every day – and btw, we don’t take that for granted. This is NYC and there is so much talent, we could not run this club anywhere else.
But the reality is, and sometimes that’s the hardest part, we can’t book everyone who wants to play the room. It’s especially hard to turn down talented musicians because of lack of a following.
The music always comes first but it’s a business too and the part that decides who gets good press coverage and who sells tickets is not always fair.
Lastly, I would say that I wish I could answer every email, and we do try. But we are a very small team and we miss replies from time to time simply because we are short staffed – not because we don’t care about you.
You worked as a bartender in the original iteration of the venue, Augie’s Jazz Bar which closed in 1998. Did that perspective help you improve the audience experience when it came to SMOKE?
YES, and that’s a particularly interesting question because we made improvements because of those experiences again last year:
When I first looked at the Augie’s space in 1998 I knew two things. I needed a real piano for Harold Mabern to play and a stage big enough to hold a piano. Augie’s had no stage and only a Fender Rhodes, so that was step one.
When we approached renovations in 2020 during the pandemic our immediate need was to create more space to make the club safer for patrons, musicians and staff.
We were in the middle of the second COVID wave and we were looking at the real possibility of having long term social distancing regulations. Because of that the bar was moved out of the music room.
But there is also a benefit beyond space that’s very apparent now.
The stage is now the main focal point in the room. It’s a true listening room now and that’s a great improvement for artists and music lovers alike.
My parter Molly Johnson (the executive chef/owner at Smoke) and I both bartended at Smoke for many years. It’s fun for the bartender to hear all the great music but a bar is also noisy! Soda guns running, dishwashers humming, Martinis shaking, ice bins dropping and not to mention the fact that a bar crowd can get a bit rowdy too.
So now, all that noise can happen in the lounge and the added bonus is ANYONE can just walk into that lounge even without a ticket and have dinner and drinks and hear the live music via ceiling speakers all while having a nice conversation if they like.
And if what they hear strikes their musical appetite they can buy a ticket for the next set and join us in the music room.
How did your audience respond to the livestreams and curbside concerts during COVID and do you think these types of initiatives have a long-term place in the jazz world?
Well, first of all it was good for the soul.
NY’ers were all cooped up for weeks at a time (ourselves included) and there was a real need for live music.
Molly and I walked into the club every morning to check on things and it was just so depressing to be closed and see it all quiet.
Pre-pandemic Smoke was open 364 days out of the year and for over two decades so it was jarring to suddenly stop the music.
The livestream and then subsequently the sidewalk concerts were extremely well received. People were hungry for live music and we drew a regular crowd for the sidewalk shows here in NY but also had international regulars who would tune into the livestream every weekend.
It was a way for people to hear live music but it was also a way for people to connect with other human beings. The chat on the livestream which Molly moderated became a virtual living room for many. I think we all needed that.
As far as having a long term place, it’s important to understand that it wasn’t really a business model. The economics of that just don’t work and we would not have been able to do it if it wasn’t for government grants and PPP programs.
And listening to acoustic music on a NYC sidewalk is obviously far from ideal. Buses, fire trucks etc etc. I remember a group of about 50 motorcycles racing down Broadway doing wheelies every night.
Somehow it never failed and it was always during the ballad or bass solo. (Ha!)
We are now mainly keeping the livestream going because we have a small but very loyal group of jazz fans who still can’t go into indoor gathering places because of health reasons and age.
Many of them pleaded with us to keep the livestream going so we are giving that a shot for as long as we can. They are really dedicated music lovers and we feel it’s an important service for them.
What long-term repercussions (positive or negative) has the COVID-19 pandemic had on the way you approach running the club?
It all depends on the perspective of course but many folks used their time off during the pandemic to re-evaluate their work/life balance.
As a result people want to work friendlier hours and want to get paid better for their time which is understandable and a net positive.
On the flip side that means a 2am jam session is hard to staff and even harder to payroll. Those economic realities make it necessary to streamline hours of operations and focus on the peak hours and days which means the club is currently closed on Mondays and Tuesdays so that our staff along with us can have a reasonable break away from work. Smoke is no longer open as late as it used to be pre-COVID.
One of the challenges we are definitely still dealing with is also the fact that NYC doesn’t always feel all that safe at 2am at the moment.
Our staff and artists getting home safely is really important to us. So until that changes I don’t see us being open until 4am again.
I think many restaurants and venues in NY still struggle from the effects of the pandemic in one way or another. It has been tough on many of us. Artists most certainly included!
But again, the shutdown forced many workers in our industry to re-evaluate life. I think that’s especially true for restaurant workers and kitchen workers in particular.
Cooks in NYC restaurants have traditionally been some of the most underpaid workers in the hospitality industry and if that wasn’t enough many worked for abusive chefs, working crazy long hours. Many of them left the industry all together during the pandemic which makes staffing difficult.
My partner and executive chef Molly Sparrow Johnson who took over the menu since the reopening is trying to build a different kind of kitchen and she is succeeding at that at last.
Needless to say it took time and determination to find and train a highly talented group of cooks and earn their trust but we are in a pretty good place now and I think the pandemic forced us to re-think a little how a kitchen runs best.
The results are pretty amazing and the food she is serving is really good! Fresh, seasonal ingredients and a menu that frequently changes. It’s been very well received so there are some lasting positive repercussions as well for sure.
With a 30-year lease, you’ve made a long-term commitment to SMOKE. What are your hopes and visions for the future of the club?
Hahahah, yeah 30 years is a long time so we are obviously optimists.
The goal always has been and still is to convert more people to this music that we love. That mission continues and more so then ever before now that we have the lounge space for jazz new comers to get their toes wet so to say without having to shell out money for an admission ticket.
It’s a way to reach broader, more diverse audiences (especially younger age groups). I really think that last part is the most important one for jazz clubs and for this music in general.
NY is damn expensive and Smoke is no real exception but we are always trying to find new options to create ways to enjoy this music at different price points in the hope that there are options available for most budgets.
It’s one of the reasons we implemented assigned seating and tickets at different price levels depending on where you sit.
Over the years we learned what the most popular seats are so we were able to keep those at the top price point but make other seats less expensive.
We even created a standing room price point that often is up to 50% less then the front row table.
The NY jazz scene has so many talented, young musicians entering the scene right out of music conservatory these days. The level of chops is at some of the highest level I have seen in all my time at Smoke.
Creating a venue for those artists to perform and to cultivate new audiences for those artists is a process that is ongoing but we feel optimistic about the future.
You co-founded SMOKE Sessions Records in 2014. How has having a record label enhanced the SMOKE brand and its influence in the jazz community?
Launching the label was a natural extension of what we were already doing.
I have been buying and trading recording gear to find the best way to capture live sound at Smoke dating all the way back to 1999 when I recorded bands while bartending at the same time.
One might say I am a little obsessed about sound (haha!). I eventually got pretty good at recording bands live and started tracking live sessions out of Smoke for other labels until Harold Mabern and David Hazeltine encouraged me to go that extra step and form a label to produce our own sessions from the club.
80 titles later we are still at it and I don’t see us stopping any time soon. We have a front row seat to some of the best music in the world and see audiences react to immediately. And so we have the ability to select some pretty amazing projects and then an opportunity to share these projects beyond the walls of Smoke Jazz Club.
It’s buidling audiences around the world but it’s also creating deeper relationships with the artists who find a recording home with our label. It’s a lot of fun and a real honor to have these amazing musicians record a series of records for us.
Appropriately fitting of course was the fact that our first title was Harold Mabern’s live album RIGHT ON TIME.
Harold’s support and trust in us was as instrumental to the label as George Coleman is to the the club. Every artist on the label is incredibly unique and important and we feel very fortunate to be part of these projects.
What additional considerations are involve when preparing for a show that will be recorded live at the club?
In order to capture these great artists in a way that does them justice, good microphones and good microphones placement is key.
And the room’s acoustics are just as important! We spent a good portion of the renovations during the pandemic on improving the acoustics of the music room.
I now also have a team of really skilled and caring live engineers and that took a while to build. Chris Allen the head engineer at Sear Sound who works on our productions helped me with the latest recording set up during the pandemic.
Our sound designer during the renovation helped complete a great team and recording was most certainly on our minds when we designed the new stage and room.
I know I drive my live engineers crazy at times when I nitpick set up and sound checks but the quest to improve tracking music and FOH sound never quite ends. It’s an ongoing process and I still add to our collection of microphones and gear and trade out items if I think it improves the results.
I enjoy the fact that I am never done learning new ways to record and produce live sound.
Thanks to Paul for taking the time to answer these questions!
If you’d like to learn more about this iconic venue, or check out their upcoming programme, you can head to:
Looking for more? Check out our guide to 15 of the best NYC Jazz clubs, as recommended by musicians on the New York scene.