183 West 10th St
New York, NY 10014
Hours: 7:30p-4a Daily
Subway: A,B,C,D,E,F,M to West 4th St | 1 to Christopher St
Written by: Rachel Antonio
Smalls contributes in a huge way to the artistic, downtown music scene. What lies beneath the foot traffic in its 10th St. locale leaves a lasting impression.
The guys that have shaped the business are as friendly and cool as college buddies; co-owners Spike Wilner, Lee Kostrinsky, and Mitch Borden have been running Smalls together since 2007. They are jacks-of-all-trades and can be found at Smalls nightly, either greeting folks at the door, managing the bar or playing a set. Mitch’s eclectic style, Lee’s Fedora, and Spike’s curly locks are hard to miss.
Smalls basement space is meant to feel like a rumpus room in a house. The uniqueness of Smalls can be felt immediately upon entering the venue. Its space welcomes all, evoking an intuitive understanding of decorum. All levels of musicianship are respected, while the hodge-podge of decor defines the room and adds a level of intrigue. The musicians face the entrance, playing from the other side of the room. The bar lines one wall and people fill in the rest of the space, sitting in chairs or leaning into their sweetheart. Pretty much anyone who is a name in jazz has been through the door of Smalls.
From Wynton Marsalis to Roy Hargrove, and Eric Reed, it is not uncommon for one of them to pop in at any given night and perform a set.
Spike credits it all to Mitch, who has a ‘flea market’ mentality. Mitch picks up anything of value, builds sculptures and puts artwork up all over the place. The club has mismatched curtains, various styles of rugs and one-of-a-kind chairs. Strategically placed mirrors reflect key strokes on the baby grand piano and the beating on the drums. Spike explains:
“We want to get away from the air of formality because right now all of the jazz clubs are so formal. You’re not allowed to talk. At Smalls the music earns the respect of the people naturally, but they’re not forced to be quiet”
[FirstLive Note: In fact, Spike was kindly ‘shushed’ by the audience when we visited Small’s to discuss FirstLive Guide.]
Smalls is building a community that encourages global participation and artistic growth. Small’s website streams live video and audio of performances nightly, and a database stores musicians’ bios and live recordings. One of Small’s new ventures is SmallsLIVE, a record label that showcases emerging musicians and features their performance at Smalls. The club also participates in many fundraising efforts for the jazz community. The club has come a long way from its early days, due to the collaboration of three down-to-Earth guys named Mitch, Spike and Lee.
Before Spike and Lee came into the picture, Smalls thrived in the ’90s as a bring-your-own-beer jazz club. Mitch was the original and sole owner at the time. The club stayed open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Spike, who is also a professional pianist, started playing gigs at Smalls in the first month it opened in 1994. He describes the venue’s scene as a group of anti-society musicians, saying “[there was] always this extremely dynamic lifestyle going on there.”
Smalls met its fate when the club went bankrupt in 2000 and then reopened in 2006 as a Brazilian bar. One year later, Spike and Lee teamed up with Mitch to revamp the place and revitalize Smalls.
Smalls now operates with a formula: a cover fee is charged, which allows patrons to come and go as they please. There are three acts each night. Seasoned musicians play early evening, and the budding artists play after-hours and jam sessions. After midnight admission is half price. Smalls is no longer BYOB, having since acquired a liquor license.