By Steve Holt
Paul Stache and Molly Sparrow Johnson are still basking in the glow from re-opening their jazz club, Smoke, after a 30-month Covid shutdown. Between organizing a kitchen delivery and welcoming the latest supply of clean linen, they shared what it’s been like getting Smoke up and swinging again.
West Side Rag: How did you get into the jazz club business?
Paul: On my first night in New York, in 1992, I went into a spot called Augie’s that was where Smoke is now. Junior Cook, Arthur Taylor, and Cecil Payne were playing. Seeing some true jazz legends in this tiny little, smoke-filled hole-in-the-wall was a very memorable night for me. I ended up spending pretty much every night there. And when Augie’s closed, I took over the space from the landlord and opened Smoke in 1999.
Molly: I moved to New York City to be a ballet dancer. I had a bad knee injury and ended up having surgery, and couldn’t dance and couldn’t teach. So I learned how to bartend and I got a job at Smoke the year it opened. Paul and I got married in 2011.
WSR: So how’s the re-launch going?
Paul: The expansion has been very well received. People are really excited to come in and hear live music again, and we’re just thrilled to have the doors open and audiences and musicians in here together. It’s been an exciting two weeks. We’re tired, but we’re excited at the same time.
WSR: Tell us about the expansion.
Molly: Even before the pandemic, we’d been thinking about expanding. Then, in June of 2020, when it was clear that Covid wasn’t going away any time soon, an architect friend figured out that if we met all the social distancing regulations, we could only have 12 people in the club at a time! That just wasn’t an option, so we had to expand. Plus, we didn’t know if people would want to come sit in a little room and hear jazz again. We wanted to make the actual listening room bigger, so people would have some more elbow room, so it’d be a little safer for everyone involved: staff, musicians, and customers.
Paul: Now we have two rooms. There’s a lounge with the bar; that’s adjacent to the music room. There’s no music or cover charge in the lounge. When the bar isn’t loud, and the band isn’t playing quietly, you can catch a little bit of music through the door. And if it whets your musical appetite, you can get a ticket and come inside.
WSR: How did you survive Covid?
Paul: What gave us confidence during the pandemic was the tremendous response to some of the things we did to keep the music going. We produced several recordings on our label, Smoke Sessions Records. Then we live-streamed performances, with just the musicians in the club, masked and behind Plexiglas. Later, we built sidewalk-dining sheds, and put the band in the storefront window. So many stopped to listen they spilled into Broadway, many with tears in their eyes. Those situations were just great motivators for us, the little nudge that we needed. The music is powerful; it will not stop for a virus.
People don’t praise their landlords in New York very often, but we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the people who own this building, The West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing. They told us, don’t worry; we want you to see this through. We never had any kind of pressure from them. We’re very grateful for that. We ended up inking a 30-year lease, so we’ll be here for a long time!
WSR: How important is your location to your success?
Paul: We couldn’t do this anywhere else. New York has a very, very deep talent pool in this music. If you think of all the giants of jazz, who walked the streets of New York and played the clubs; it all happened here, right? As club owners, you have the ability to go to your vinyl record collection, and look at the back of the album cover and go, Oh, wait a minute, he lives in New York, and this person is in New York, let’s give him a call!
Molly: And our Upper West Side neighbors have always been supportive, not just in coming to the club, but during Covid and the renovations, just really rooting for us.
Paul: They didn’t just stop by to see that we were okay, or write letters to elected officials trying to get us help. Our neighbors spent thousands and thousands of dollars for gift cards, for a closed venue, just as a sign of support. We couldn’t have done it without the community. Molly and I live just a couple of blocks from the club. This is a community that we work in and care about. So it’s important to us to be here.
WSR: The New Yorker used to start off all its nightlife listings with the line, “Nightclub owners lead complicated lives.” True?
Paul: (laughs) I guess we are a little bit crazy to be doing this. It’s not your typical nine-to-five job.
Smoke Jazz Club is open Wednesday through Sunday, at 2751 Broadway, between 105th and 106th, aka Duke Ellington Boulevard. You can take the 1 Train.