Through all the ups and downs of the coronavirus crisis, no independent music venue has been more of a bellwether than Smalls Jazz Club. And its experience over the past week reveals just how challenging the situation continues to be, even with a vaccine rollout underway and new indoor capacity guidelines in effect for New York City.
It was just over a year ago that Smalls closed its doors as part of an across-the-board shutdown of bars and restaurants — a hallmark of the city's early response to the coronavirus, which Spike Wilner, the owner of Smalls, contracted at the time.
By mid-May, Wilner had recovered and set in motion a new phase for the club, including nonprofit status for the SmallsLIVE Foundation and an individual sponsorship program, the "Get the Cats Working Again" fund. "I believe it's just a matter of hanging on, hanging in there," he said in an email newsletter. "To survive we must be tenacious."
And tenacity is precisely the trait that Smalls has embodied in the ensuing months. Last June the club began presenting bands in a daily livestream, each underwritten by a sponsor. There's a longstanding tradition of live webcasts from the club — I first wrote about it back in 2013 — but in other respects this was new terrain. The SmallsLIVE Foundation benefited from a one-time donation of $25,000 from Billy Joel, otherwise relying on individual donations and some foundation support.
Last fall, Wilner began opening the doors at Smalls to an extremely limited in-person audience, in compliance with capacity guidelines from New York State. "Many people are too afraid to come and many musicians have refused to come in," he wrote in a November newsletter. "We understand, of course, but still have to continue somehow. Those that have chosen to come to the club to perform or to listen have resoundingly been overwhelmed by how much they needed to play or hear our music."
Greg Bryant, whose "In the Club" feature airs on Jazz After Hours at WBGO, attended a show at Smalls last October. He also caught Wilner's trio at Mezzrow, a companion club, earlier this month. "Including myself, there were only six people at either show," Bryant recalls in an email. "Everyone was masked that I encountered, our temperatures were checked and we were all at a safe distance. I completely understand that everyone may not feel safe going out at this time, but I also understand that the community of listeners and musicians need each other. We need a safe space to test the waters in getting the scene back into action. Smalls had assumed that burden and I felt comfortable and renewed in my experience there."
Last week, an anonymous complaint to the State Liquor Authority brought Smalls' operations to a halt. At issue was a restriction imposed by the SLA decreeing that live music at any establishment must be offered as a complement to food service. A venue that advertises music, or sells tickets to an event, is in violation of that rule.
And while a state judge declared the ban on ticketed live events "not only excessive but also irrational," it still stands in New York City, at least for the time being. "Please note that until April 2," reads a recent statement by the SLA, "only incidental music is permissible. This means that advertised and/or ticketed shows are not permissible. Music should be incidental to the dining experience and not the draw itself."
On April 2, the statement adds, "live entertainment will resume under specific and forthcoming DOH guidance."
In an email distributed on Saturday, Wilner wrote that the SLA inspector insisted on classifying Smalls as a restaurant, despite its tavern license and lack of a kitchen. At a meeting of the SLA commission, the club avoided termination by a vote of two to one. "I am not clear why we were spared," Wilner wrote, "but I'd like to believe that they knew who we were and didn't want to extinguish a cultural institution. We will still get fined and probably significantly, but Smalls will live to see another day."
In fact, the Smalls livestream picks up again this evening, with the Ari Hoenig Trio. The club will once again be presenting bands to an empty room, at least until the new guidelines are announced on April 2.
For more information about Smalls, including archived livestreams and sponsorship opportunities, visit the SmallsLIVE Foundation.