Ten years ago, two young bartenders pooled their savings to take over a fading Upper West Side institution.
Today, their venture, Smoke Jazz Club, on Broadway and 106th Street, is considered one of the best venues in the world.
“It’s the tops,” said George Coleman, the legendary tenor saxophonist and one-time member of the Miles Davis Quintet. “It’s a small club, but its size does in no way diminish its importance.”
The two friends, Frank Christopher, 44, and Paul Stache, 36, met while working at Augie’s, a popular hangout for jazz fans. Since the late 1970s, the grubby bar had attracted a devoted audience with cheap beer and free music, offering musicians a place to jam into the wee hours.
While now prominent stars like Eric Alexander and Brad Mehldau got their start there, it was hardly a serious jazz club. Renowned pianist David Hazeltine described Augie’s as a “rat hole.”
“It was a funky place that was fun to play in, but we had to pass the hat around, so we were basically begging for money,” Hazeltine explained. “It was humiliating.”
Luckily for the performers, the new owners cared deeply about music. Christopher had grown up on Eastern Long Island listening to his grandfather’s record collection, enjoying the Big Band sound of Count Basie and Lionel Hampton.
Stache’s father had taken him to the jazz clubs of their native West Berlin, where he heard Miles Davis perform for the allied forces.
Both became musicians, Christopher playing the drums and Stache playing guitar and keyboards. They understood how little respect was paid the highly accomplished artists who walked through Augie’s doors: half the crowd would sit with their backs to the players, who were squished into a corner by the kitchen.
Once Christopher and Stache took charge, they ripped out the kitchen to create a proper bandstand and reshaped the ceiling for better acoustics. Augie’s electric piano was swapped for a leased Steinway grand.
They even invested in a state-of-the-art sound system to replace the lone amplifier on the floor.
“We had no money left the day we opened,” Christopher said.
“Zero operating budget,” Stache added. “We had maxed out the last credit card and cashed in all the coins in the change jar.”
After rebuilding the space with their own hands, the two tended bar seven nights a week, did their own repairs and mixed their own sound.
It helped that Stache showed an acute sense of hearing. When the piano tuner had readied the Steinway for opening day, Stache insisted that the G sounded off. Neither the tuner nor Christopher could hear it.
That night, the great Harold Mabern played the piano, commenting afterward that it was a fine instrument but that the G was out of tune.
“My friend Paul has golden ears,” Christopher said, recounted the episode.
Such attention to detail has paid off. Becca Pulliam, producer of NPR’s JazzSet at WBGO, praised Smoke’s outstanding acoustics.
“I never feel like I hear the sound system, I only hear the music,” she explained. “Many rooms have their sweet spots, but at Smoke it feels like the whole room is vibrating and in tune with itself.”
Smoke’s dedicated patrons agree that the club’s success is due to more than excellent sound: the owner’s profound respect for the art and its practitioners clearly plays a role.
Celebrated Hammond B-3 organist Dr. Lonnie Smith has spent the last five decades playing all over the world. Yet he remembers the many parties thrown at Smoke for the performers, from Thanksgiving dinners to two weddings.
“Now what club does that? You name one!” he said. “Some people open up clubs, they want to get rich. But they’re into it because they love the music and they love the guys.”
Smoke is so popular with artists that several—Eddie Henderson and John Farnsworth among them—have asked to record here rather than at a studio. Some of these tracks are included in the first issue under the club’s own record label, to be released May 5.
The four-CD box set showcases many of the regulars who have performed here over the past 10 years. George Coleman and Harold Mabern have returned again and again since playing opening night. Cedar Walton, Steve Turre and Peter Bernstein have also come back repeatedly.
What audiences can expect from a night at Smoke, Stache said, is perhaps best exemplified by the sextet One 4 All: “It’s a Horace Silver-like, balls-to-the-walls, swinging with horns kind of sound that makes people walk home thinking, ‘Damn, that was smokin’!’” Stache explained.
The club’s name refers to that sound as much as to its former owner, Augusto “Augie” Cuartas, who was immortalized by former patron and writer Paul Auster as the Harvey Keitel character in the 1995 movie Smoke.
Looking back at the last 10 years, Smoke’s owners said they have more than reached their goals.
“If we have accomplished anything, it’s that we still get along like brothers and we have musicians who love to come here and play,” Christopher said. “That will never change.”
Taking in Smoke’s exposed brick walls, the chandeliers and the red velvet banquettes with seating for barely 50, Stache added: “It’s the little room that could.”
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