In the spring of 1994, a jazz aficionado named Mitch Borden started the West Village–based Smalls Jazz Club, an after-hours basement where musicians and fans came together to celebrate the music they loved. Back then, things were quite different:There was a $10 cover charge and a loose BYOB policy.The music went on pretty much until the sun came up—a laidback scene quite different from other mainstream jazz venues in Manhattan. For starters, patrons not only brought six-packs from the neighborhood deli but also brought pizza, Chinese food or whatever munchies they could get.
But that was then. These days Smalls has a full bar and heftier cover charge, but the spirit remains.
“Mitch single-handedly created and ran the club from 1994 to 2002,” says current co-owner Spike Wilner. “Then in 2002 several things happened.The rent skyrocketed, and also there were other issues such as the fire code.The place was just a raw basement in the beginning, and the city was coming down hard, so he kind of closed bankrupt.”
However, a place with Smalls’ strong draw wouldn’t go quietly. “Around that time another guy came along and got this space with the intention of opening a new place altogether,” explains Wilner. “He renovated the space and brought it up to code, but after two months nobody would come in there, and if they did, they’d ask if it was Smalls and, when he’d say no, they would just turn around and leave.”
Instead of allowing it to go under again, the businessman contacted Borden to offer him the job of managing the club—with its original name reinstated. “Mitch agreed, and that went on until 2006, but that guy was really not interested in running a jazz club, so he started looking for a way to get out of it,” says Wilner. “That’s when I came along with another musician named Lee Kostrinsky—one of my partners who, along with Mitch Borden and I, have run the business since February 2007.”
Today, the three partners are working to bring back the original club’s vibe. “Since that time we have been trying to restore it to what it was before—this freewheeling atmosphere with very high-level musicians playing continuously with a commitment to afterhours and just trying to really keep that alive in that part of the city and in New York.”
As the club continues to grow in popularity, the owners have been looking into the future: There are plans for a major overhaul of their website that will allow fans to stream concerts over the Internet, and they have also started their own music label. Recently they’ve even ventured into book publishing, putting out Why Pat Cooks, a collection of poems by Kostrinsky.
At 15 years old, Smalls is back on track and seems geared to stay that way. Not bad for what started out as a small basement club in Greenwich Village.
183 W. 10th St. (at 7th Ave. South), 212-252-5091