Keeping the Music Playing During a Pandemic

By Allison Bolt

Spike Wilner (Photo/The Smalls Live Foundation)

Smalls Jazz Club of New York City, NY opened its doors in 1994. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the club has been temporarily closed since March 15, 2020, for the first time since 2002. However, owner Spike Wilner has kept the music playing.

Wilner was born in New York City but grew up in St. Louis, Mo. In St. Louis, Wilner attended University City High School where he was a part of the school’s jazz program. His fellow peers in the high school jazz band included Neil Caine, Christopher Thomas, Peter Martin and more who are all now extremely successful jazz musicians and remain close colleagues of Wilner.

Following graduation, Wilner moved back to New York City to study jazz piano at The New School. He was instantly immersed in the New York City jazz scene and soon became the student of jazz pianist, composer and music educator Barry Harris, known for his bebop style. “I kind of fell into that bebop crowd,” says Wilner. “Then I just started to earn my living playing the piano basically from age 18 until I was about 40 touring and playing and teaching and doing the things that musicians do.”

Around the age of 40, Wilner earned his master’s degree at State University of New York. “While I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to become a partner at Smalls Jazz Club which was going through some problems at that time,” says Wilner. “It was right after 9/11 and that caused some economic havoc in the city and Mitch had to close down the club for a while. There was a chance for it to reopen and he needed a partner and I came on board. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

The early 2000s economic downturn allowed Wilner to purchase a one-bedroom apartment in Harlem for only $40,000. He then used the apartment in 2007 to take out a loan to purchase his share of Smalls Jazz Club and become partners with the original owner, Mitchell Borden, and with his friend Lee Kostrinsky. Kostrinsky sold his share of the club in 2011 while Borden and Wilner continued to run the club together until 2019 when Borden retired.

In September of 2007, the club was open and thriving. “I tried to create a creative pot of musicians cooking every night,” says Wilner. “Late night jam sessions for guys to hang and cut their teeth, performance opportunities for more established musicians and we started live streaming right about that time.” The club was a culture of its own, one that encouraged the community to gather. “The jazz community is like a family,” says Wilner. “It’s a community where musicians seek experienced people who can teach you. There’s a camaraderie, not competitive, where musicians constantly challenge each other.”

Spike Wilner (Photo/Spike Wilner on Bandcamp)

At the time, streaming was new technology but Wilner was dedicated to recording every performance and documenting it in an archive. “An artist can paint and create art in their home every day and never share it, but music is meant to be shared in the world in order to create something,” says Wilner.

The club was presenting five bands per night, seven nights a week so the archive grew quickly. Wilner has continued to document every performance at the club for the past 13 years and the archive now has 18,000 recordings featuring 4,500 musicians. “I just want to preserve something for future generations,” says Wilner.

Recently, Wilner created a not-for-profit foundation called The Smalls Live Foundation for Jazz, Art and Education. “Our overall mission is world peace through music,” says Wilner. “Our second goal is also to subsidize operating our venues and support artists and musicians who play there with shows, teaching, recordings even tour support.” The foundation also has an education component that includes a class at The New School called Smalls Live Profiles that profiles veteran jazz artists by examining their work in the archive.

When the club had to close its doors in March due to the pandemic, Wilner kept the music going online. “I decided even though we were not allowed to be publicly open we would continue to broadcast bands each day so that the continuity of the club would not be lost,” says Wilner.

The club is currently relying on donations from the Smalls Live Foundation’s supporting members. “We’ve actually been successful in this model,” says Wilner. “Not to say we’re making any money, but we’ve been raising enough money to pay a band every day and pay the rent.”

The effects of the pandemic have drastically impacted the club as well as other clubs and musicians across the country. Despite the situation, the historic Smalls Jazz Club is dedicated to keeping the music playing and paying musicians throughout the pandemic.

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For more information, please email foundation@smallslive.com or visit www.smallslive.com

Originally published at https://www.forbesignite.com on September 3, 2020.

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