"...there is no work for jazz musicians - it’s not a job. It’s an art." - Rafał Sarnecki talks with Smalls Jazz Club's owner Spike Wilner
You were born in New York, interested in jazz from a young age and a professional piano player by the time you were a teenager. Do you see any striking differences between the New York jazz scene back when you started performing versus the scene today?
When I was 19-21 years old (I’m 48 years old now so that was almost 30 years ago) New York still had the great masters from the great era. You could still hear Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Milt Jackson, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins, Jackie McLean, Art Taylor. The voices of our heroes were still alive for us. Guys from my generation were working in their bands. Steve Davis, who is my age, got into Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. You would get a gig with Milt Jackson, you could still play with Clark Terry or Nat Adderley. The scene was still alive, the legends were still here. As I got older and those guys got older, they started to pass away. At this stage, this connection to that real culture of jazz has diminished a lot. I feel like my generation of musicians was the last generation to be able to directly connect to those masters. I had the chance to study with Walter Davis Jr or Jaki Byard. I had a chance to be around great masters and feel them - see what they were like in person. At that time in New York you still had that jazz culture: there was a jazz church, there were jazz meetings. Barry Harris would have those classes which were like a family get together. That community still exists, however it’s not the same. It naturally diminished when the great masters passed away.
I have heard that 40-50 years ago, musicians on the NY jazz scene were almost exclusively American. Nowadays, hundreds of international musicians come to NY annually to study in colleges or to make a career. Many international musicians have and continue to perform at Smalls. Do you think that the New York jazz has changed because of the influence of international musicians who bring elements of their musical traditions with a markedly different (often less swinging) rhythmic feel?
This music has it’s roots in the African-American culture. New York City was one of the places where jazz was born and grew. It was a hardcore bebop town. Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Jackie MacLean ruled here. This is their town. When I was in the music school that tradition was still very strong. I was coming up on the scene with Peter Bernstein, Brad Mehldau, Larry Goldings, Sam Yahel and bebop was our language. Some guys took the language and changed it, some others stayed with it. As the scene had changed that bebop tradition has become less and less. It still exists but it’s not as strong as it was.
In the last 20-30 years jazz has become very international. Artists all over the world appreciate the music and want to learn it. In New York you see the musicians from all over the world: Europe, Japan, Israel. The bebop tradition sometimes isn’t very strong where they come from. They don’t understand it, they don’t get the sensibility of it - it involves the songs, phrases and language. In certain respects the music has changed by that but also the musicians change when they come here. Jazz has gotten from being a very insular music right from the cradle of the African-American culture to an international music that is open to everyone. Nonetheless, you still have to embrace that original intention. If you’re not an African American person you have to at least be able to be sympathetic to that culture to the point when you can understand why it is. What is this feeling? What are the roots of this feeling? What do those phrases mean? Why are they played? It’s like a language. When you want you learn French you should probably go to France and live in Paris and then you can really learn it. It’s the same with jazz. If you want to learn this music you can come to where it’s spoken fluently. Here in this country, especially in New York, it’s still fluent.
Who are your favorite young musicians in New York who just emerged on the scene recently?
I think that Smalls has a very strong representation of the best young guys on the scene today: Stacy Dillard, Tivon Pennicott, Alex Claffy, Emmet Cohen, Kyle Poole, Jonathan Barber, Jonathan Michel, Miki Yamanaka… there is so many of them. I think that the jazz scene in New York City for what it’s worth is very healthy. It’s a very positive scene. It’s smaller than it was but it’s more intense. There is less room for people to be 50 - 50. Back when I was younger, you would have guys who may or may not have been able to make it. Now there is no room for mediocrity.
In a past interview, you said “The foundation of jazz is the blues and romance and joy. Without those elements, there is no jazz. I don't want to hear improvised rock music or improvised latin music.” Do you think that the New York jazz is going in the direction of becoming “improvised rock, latin or classical music”?
I’m very conservative in that sense. People are gonna argue about it forever. I don’t believe that improvised music is jazz. Improvisation is in all music and you can improvise anyway you like. Jazz is not only about improvisation. Jazz is a tradition, it’s a feeling, just the way any music has a feeling. If you’re a classical musician you play within the tradition of that music, if you’re a bluegrass musician you play within the tradition of that music. The same for salsa music. If you’re a salsa musician and you go to a salsa gig and start playing with a rock feel they’re gonna think you’re crazy. Jazz is this kind of music where it seems to be acceptable that you can change all the feeling you want and still call it jazz. And everyone gets very angry about it. I don’t believe that. I think that the essence of this music is the feel of the music which is: swinging, the blues, the foundation of the standard tunes that have become the basis of the improvisations, the language of the phrases, the bebop, the language of Charlie Parker and how it evolved. I think that if you wanna play jazz you have to investigate that language and that feeling and make it real, make it yours. Then you can change it if you feel like changing it.
I personally find the improvised latin feeling very boring. I find the improvised rock very boring. I think what’s interesting is a great swinging feeling. In my opinion that’s jazz. People tend to disagree with me. I have a conservative view point on that however I don't consider myself to be traditionalist. I feel like I am a modernist, I have a modern view point on how to improvise. I believe that you can take the language, assimilate it, own it and then speak it in your own terms. It’s not about disregarding the language. Innovation comes from being so familiar with the language that you can speak anyway you want. That’s how the great ones are. I say to people: “Name one great jazz artist that doesn’t swing”.
You studied jazz piano at the New School and SUNY Purchase. To what degree do you believe that schools are helpful for learning how to play? Are the concerts and jam sessions at clubs like Smalls a better source of jazz education?
I think that jazz school is not a good idea. Schools should change their approach to the music education. Student who really want to get a degree in music should go to a school which is more like a classical conservatory with jazz in it. In a conservatory like this you would receive the fundamental music education such as: reading, harmony, theory, ear training, classical repertoire and jazz improvisation, composition, harmony. Dividing the schools into classical and jazz programs is not good for either the classical or jazz artists. Classical musicians could really benefit from the skills that jazz musicians have and jazz musicians really need to benefit from the skills that classical musicians have. It is just silly to make a division. The other problem is that the schools are so expensive that it’s just not worth it. You have schools such as New School or Manhattan School of Music which charge like $30, 000. It’s not worth it to spend this money for a degree in jazz! You will never get this money back. You will never get a job because there is no work for jazz musicians - it’s not a job. It’s an art. If you want to be an artist you have to face the fact that you’re gonna be poor. That’s the way it is for artists. So if you wanna spend your money and go to a jazz school it’s up to you but I think it’s a waste of time. If you want to learn how to play an instrument the best thing to do is to study with a teacher who knows how to play that instrument proficiently. If you want to learn how to play jazz then get some jazz records, copy solos, come out to the jam sessions and play, go to live clubs and meet jazz musicians. That’s all you need. At the time when I went to the New School I didn’t really know what to do with my life. I wanted to go to school, my parents wanted me to go to school. The most important thing that I got from the music school was meeting my social class. My roommate was Larry Goldings, my best friends were Brad Mehldau, Peter Bernstein and Roy Hargrove. All of those guys were at school with me at the time. So here I am, 19 years old guy, meeting Brad Mehldau who was 18 years old. The way he could play at the age of 18 was unbelievable already and I couldn’t play like that. He was my friend so I could watch him, he would show me how to listen to records. Larry Goldings was my roommate so I would watch him practice, we would go together to the sessions. I also did have the advantage of meeting some great teachers in New York like Barry Harris, Kenny Barron, Harry Whitaker, Walter Davis Jr, Walter Bishop, Kenny Werner, Fred Hersch. I got a chance to be around all those great artists when I was young and to take little pieces from each one which over the years has become very valuable to me. I think that right now you have a lot of young guys who go to these music schools and spend a lot of money without getting much from it. Jazz is a solitary path. It’s not something that can be codified or academized.
You started performing at Smalls very soon after it opened in 1994. In 2007, you and Lee Kostrinsky bought and reopened the club after a break. What was so special about Smalls that convinced you to become the manager and one of the owners?
Smalls opened in 1994. It kind of replaced the Village Gate which closed around that time. That was also a club that was very social. In general, back in those days clubs were very social places. You would go there and it wouldn’t be just sitting and listening. You would meet friends, talk, laugh, have a good time. When Smalls opened I became very involved. I was at the club every day, I played there a lot and became close friends with Mitch Borden - the person who created Smalls. After 9/11, Smalls went bankrupt and closed for about a year and a half. It left a big hole in my life and in the scene because it was important for so many young musicians at that time. The musicians who were playing there at the time were Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jason Lindner, Omer Avital, Greg Tardy. They were in the late 20s, they weren’t famous yet and it was their place. The older musicians weren’t playing there because it was just a dirty little bar. After Smalls went bankrupt it underwent a couple transformations. Then the chance came around for me to revive it. I was very worried that if I wouldn’t have stepped in it would have been lost forever. I made a decision to buy the club with a friend of mine Lee Kostrinsky who was my college roommate. Mitch restored the club to back what it was. In 2011 we made a decision that I would buy Lee’s share. Since that time I’ve been running Smalls with Mitch. Last year we opened our new club Mezzrow.
A few years ago, I saw your Facebook post sharing a very rude email response from a frustrated musician who wasn't successful about getting a gig at Smalls. I have even heard stories about booking managers of some NY jazz clubs receiving death threats. Do you think that because of the competition on the scene nowadays, people are more desperate and aggressive about booking gigs?
Every musician thinks that their music is the most valuable music in the world. There is a lot of ego involved with everyone who plays this music and there is not a lot understanding about how gigs really come. People think: “If I give him my CD, he will listen to my CD and he will say: Oh my God, he is a genius, please come play”. That’s not what happens because we don’t listen to CD’s. In this business everybody knows everybody for so long, there is no hiding. It’s very very rare that someone comes along who is so great and no one has ever heard him before. You always hear about them in advance. Smalls is very organic. What I like to see is young guys come in and hang out, sit in and if they’re good, people notice. I don’t like it when people call me everyday asking “when are you going to listen to my CD?”. That’s not the way it works. It may work differently in other parts of the country and the world but at Smalls we still follow that old tradition.
I consider myself to be an artist. I finished school at the age of 23 and after that I made my living playing music in bars and restaurants in New York City. A lot of the guys that I went to school with were becoming very famous fast. Brad Mehldau and I were very close, I was watching his amazing career explode. The same with Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein. The people around me were getting a lot of acknowledgment - going on tours, making records. I wasn’t receiving the same and I started to get very dark about myself. I had an ego problem, I couldn’t face myself. I wanted to know why they have what I can’t have. When I was 30 I lost my girlfriend because I was so negative all the time. It was at that moment that I had a realization that I had to change my attitude. The idea of being a professional musician was making me crazy. I realized that making your money playing music is not always the right thing to do. You have to understand that you’re an artist. An artist is someone who is devoted to the art for the sake of the art. It means day to day work, investigation to yourself, your taste, your personality. Study, work, study, work with no idea of making money, no idea of reward. The reward is the work. I made this shift in my mind and when I did that I was happier. I stopped caring about: ”Oh, he has this gig, and he has that gig..”. I don’t care about that anymore. I also stopped caring about “Oh, I have to play Herbie Hancock style, I gotta play Chick Corea style, I gotta play McCoy Tyner style”. What about Spike Wilner style? I gotta find that. And if people don’t like it.. I’m sorry, it’s OK. Maybe nobody likes me but at least it’s me. I became more and more involved with the idea of art. In American society, success is about money and fame. But it’s not what art is about. Art is a spiritual journey. Art is about self discovery, rigorous discipline. I believe that musicians need to embrace that especially with jazz. It’s a spiritual music. The way a great jazz musician plays is being a vessel for something bigger. You’re not thinking, you’re reacting and the best jazz is just completely spontaneous. You don’t know what’s gonna happen - that’s God coming through you. If you’re clear it will be beautiful, if you’re brilliant it will be brilliant, if you’re dull it will be dull. The greatest jazz artists are also the greatest spiritual beings and you can develop that sense of spirituality in yourself through this music.
I have seen you perform at Smalls with a variety of different groups. I heard your drumless trio with Yotam Silberstein and Paul Gill which I enjoyed a lot. I also heard your quartet and solo piano performances at Smalls. What are your plans for the future as a piano player?
My new band that I’m really excited about is called The Well Tempered Quartet. It’s piano, organ, vibraphone and drums. It features Brian Charette, Behn Gillette and Anthony Pinciotti. We’ve played a few gigs and it’s a very exciting group. I hope to cultivate this band a little more and see how that goes. I also always like to play with Joe Magnarelli, Tyler Mitchell. I have a few different projects. In the next couple years when I finish the work with the revenue share, I will start to focus on myself as a performer. I never really spent time to promote myself as a performer because I’ve been so concentrated on practicing and studying music. Im 48 years old. Maybe in the next 5 years I can start having a career. Who knows.. I don’t really worry about it that much.