New York Sun
May 30, 2003
by Jennifer Fishbein.
The city's jazz mecca - Smalls - will close its doors for good after tomorrow night's performance - with little fanfare and one terrific last jam. "What a great send-off we'll have," said club owner Mitch Borden. "It's a great line-up."
Great last show or not, jazz lovers are stunned that the West Village club is closing its doors.
"I can't believe it's closing. If I'd known, I never would've let that happen," said Samidh Guha, a club regular.
"This has to be a joke, you're breaking my heart," said Ron Carmi, a devotee in Los Angeles who frequented Smalls "all the time" during the six years he lived in New York. "Every time I go back [to New York], I try to make it. I'm.a little stunned. I don't know where I'm gonna go for jazz. What a bummer."
Mr. Borden, 46, said he was forced to close the 10-yearold club due to dwindling patronage post-9/11, debts, and skyrocketing rent - sentiments echoed by a variety of jazz club owners, some of whom said the new smoking ban also has played a part.
"It's more the economy than anything else,"said Stephen Jones, owner of Knickerbocker Bar and Grill on University Place. "Drinking and smoking and listening to jazz kind of went hand in hand. Jazz as a popular music form is going through a lull. It's not a young person's music."
Michael Ya'acobi, owner of K'av'eh'az on Mercer Street, agreed.
"We got hit very badly by September 11," he said. "We fell down 50% to 60%. Now, again with the cigarettes, we fall down again."
He said average nightly crowds have plummeted to as low as 120, from nearly 300. "Also, there are no tourists in the city," he said.
As for Smalls, "People weren't coming for like a year," Mr. Borden said. "I thought it would get better."
Mr. Borden said he took out loans in the hope that business would expand, but when turnout remained low, he refused to increase the $10 cover charge or sell food, drinks, or souvenirs to make ends meet.
"I'd rather die than make changes,"Mr.Borden said."I feel very strongly about no alcohol, nothing to buy. If I can't have it that way, I don't want it at all."
"I never wanted to make a business out of Smalls," he said. "I just wanted to scrape by, pay the bills, create an otherworldly jazz club, make it the most fantastic place. Break all the rules as far as jazz clubs go."
Mr. Borden - and his many fans - feel he succeeded.
Housed inconspicuously in a basement on West 10 th Street, Smalls had a reputation for featuring the city's best jazz musicians nightly.
Patrons who braved the plunge down the steep wooden staircase into the cozy, dark lounge plastered with pictures of jazz greats were treated to 10 hours of live music, beginning at 10 p.m.
"You really had to have good chops to get up there," Mr. Carmi said." This had a completely different taste," he said, noting the sense of community. "You didn't know what you were gonna get - it's like magic."
Mr. Borden said he's encouraging customers to visit Fat Cat, a billiards club on Christopher Street where he rents a room four nights a week for jazz performances. For a $15 cover, patrons will receive a drink and live music until 2 a.m. on weekdays, and 4 a.m. on weekends.
"I try to tell [customers], 'I'm moving, not closing, don't worry about it,' " he said.
But fans are not so easily appeased.
"This place has a classic sense to it, a sense of history," said devotee Jared Harary."It's a loss - a loss for the city."
"I think it's very, very sad," said Sandra Niemann." It was the very first jazz club I ever went to in New York City. I can't think of any jazz club in the city like Smalls. It's the end of an era."
Mr. Borden said audience support lately has been overwhelming. He said a few customers have offered him $40,000 to keep Smalls open, but he refused them since he does not want to get deeper in debt.
"I adore the public," Mr. Borden said." The people that come to Smalls are the most brilliant people I've ever seen. They're not normal by any means. Birds of a feather flock together, and they all flock to Smalls."
Mr. Borden said he would consider reopening Smalls, but doubts he'd succeed. He said a two-year hunt for a cheaper venue turned out fruitless. "I would only aspire if I can do the same thing," he said. "What you need is an inexpensive basement, no more than $3,000 a month. I pay $8,000 a month now." Despite his misfortune, Mr. Borden professes optimism for the future. "It's show biz," Mr. Borden said. "The show must go on. That's it! "