As both a leader and sideman, pianist Jason Lindner has stitched vast threads of connection within the New York jazz world and beyond. His omnipresence at the Winter Jazz Festival, for instance, inspired WBGO’s Simon Rentner to coin “The Jason Lindner Award” for the busiest musician at the festival.
As someone who has moved fluidly through the scenes at venues like Smalls, NuBlu, and The Jazz Gallery, we at Jazz Speaks thought it would be great to sit down with Lindner and talk about how the jazz community has moved and changed over the years.
The Jazz Gallery: Smalls was such an important place for you and a lot of your peers when you were getting started in the 1990s. Why do you think Smalls ended up being a real lodestar for your musical community at the time?
Jason Lindner: First, it was their booking model. Musicians were in charge of finding other musicians to play. Musicians tend to know more about the scene because they’re on the scene. It might take someone who’s a booker or a club owner a little longer to understand what’s happening.
In New York at the time, for the premier jazz clubs like the Vanguard and the Blue Note, you had to be of a certain career stature to play there. It was how their model worked—they sold tickets, had cover charges, and attracted a certain clientele. Smalls didn’t have that type of model—it’s why that first Smalls compilation album was called Jazz Underground. These weren’t artists who were names in the recording industry yet. So you had all of these underground jazz musicians that were known in the community but not beyond that. Through Smalls, they had a chance to have worldwide recognition.
Number two, the model of Smalls was very accessible. They had no liquor license, so there was no age limit. They didn’t have to adhere to a lot of the same rules and regulations that regular bars had to. Smalls helped so many young people in New York, especially students, by being so accessible and so affordable. It was pretty multi-generational. It was striking how accessible Smalls was when other jazz clubs weren’t. A student wouldn’t go to the Blue Note unless they were a superfan of somebody and wanted to save up $25-85 for a ticket.
But maybe the biggest reason was the jam sessions. They had open-ended jam sessions seven nights a week and the club wouldn’t close until the last person left. That’s why they called it Bohemian, stuff like that. All the musicians who came to New York to a play a show would all end up at Smalls by the end of the night. That’s how a lot of people met and made relationships and new groups.
One more thing—because it was so musician-friendly, Mitch Borden actually financially supported a number of older, down-and-out musicians. These were freelancers, master musicians in their 60s, 70s, and 80s, who had played for a long time, but weren’t part of the larger employment system, so they didn’t have health benefits and what not. These were people that my peers looked up to, but they weren’t able to make ends meet financially, or get help with health or addiction issues. Smalls was really a home for a lot of those musicians. There was an ecosystem of support between older and younger musicians.
There’s never been another place like that in New York in my lifetime. And they’re not like that anymore because they’re a legally-operating bar. It might be more comparable to the World Stage in Los Angeles where Terrace Martin, Thundercat, and the LA jazz community came up. Billy Higgins was the founder of that place. That really has an ecosystem of youth and elders. There was also a place called the University of the Streets in New York where I used to play a lot, and they had jam sessions and concerts. That was more of a community center. It wasn’t really run like a club.
TJG: It’s interesting hearing about Smalls compared to somewhere like the old Knitting Factory, which also had a strong community, but a very different model. A lot of the performers associated with the Knitting Factory had eclectic tastes and styles, which I definitely associate with you and many of your peers. Was there a lot of crossover between the Smalls and Knitting Factory scenes when you were coming up?
JL: If the original Knitting Factory was still around now, I feel that would be a choice place of mine because of the experimental and eclectic spirit. I really like that music, but back in the ‘90s, it wasn’t really a scene that I fell into. The people I was playing with at the time were bebop-centric. I had studied with Barry Harris and a lot of my friends were in that same circle. Smalls became a pretty bop-centric place. I feel the taste of Mitch Borden had a lot to do with that, as well as the people he associated with, like Frank Hewitt and Tommy Turrentine—they were straight-up bebop.
I actually dislike using names for genres, because they oversimplify and generalize cultural movements, downplaying the innovative individuals involved — terms and phrases historically created largely by outliers to those movements.
But anyway, for explanation sake, Smalls was more in that vein.
There were a few players—definitely the minority—like myself, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Omer Avital, Myron Walden and others—who weren’t restricting themselves to that style of music, who’s style was more genre-fluid. That grew as the years went on, especially after the release of Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls. But Smalls and the Knitting Factory were really different scenes back then. There was little crossover, I think.