A cultural Mecca
The venue’s first night back on July 21st will feature saxophonist George Coleman, who has a long history with the venue. The George Coleman Quartet was the first band that played at Smoke when it opened in 1999; they were the first to perform at the club after 9/11 closed it down for several days; and they performed there during the summer of 2020.
“George is 87 now, still sounds great,” Stache said. “Having him come in once again after this long period — now the longest period ever that we’ve been closed — and reopen it, I can’t think of anything more fitting.”
Coleman, who has worked with the likes of Miles Davis, Max Roach and Herbie Hancock, said he was relieved that Smoke is back in business.
“The great staff and owners always make everyone feel at home, and it’s an institution that both fans and musicians know will always have great music,” he said. “In fact, I will often stop by Smoke when I’m not working to just enjoy the music, just like a fan!”
There are at least a dozen other artists and groups booked through the summer, including the Al Foster Quintet, Charles McPherson, Vijay Iyer, Mary Stallings, Bill Charlap and Bobby Watson. Stache is optimistic about turnout, because he thinks people are starved for live experiences.
“As New Yorkers we are so spoiled in many ways — because we’re in this cultural Mecca, we can have anything we want at our fingertips at all times,” he said. “There’s lots of venues and lots of music. All of a sudden, you take that away for a period of time and people realize how important that is to their lives. We take things for granted when we have them all the time.”
As for scaremongering about the state of the city – a view emanating from right-wing newspapers, hyperventilating scolds and occasionally the mayor – Stache and Sparrow Johnson aren’t too concerned. They view rising rents and the proliferation of vacant stores – which started years before the pandemic, but were exacerbated by it – as among the biggest problems facing New York.
“We see ourselves as part of the solution,” Stache said. “There’s a lot of creative people in New York, and a lot of people who want to open up small businesses. The red tape is no joke – this whole process took as long as it did partly because of that.”
Sparrow Johnson can remember how different the city was 25 years ago. She moved here in 1996, and lived in pre-gentrification Williamsburg.
“Times Square was seedy and scary, and you didn’t walk into the north woods in Central Park,” she said. “It’s not like that now. Crime may be up, but it’s nothing like it was then. And I know it’s all relative, but as somebody who remembers being told not to walk east of Amsterdam Avenue, I think everything’s fine. Everything will be okay.”
Which is partially why the couple never even considered giving up on Smoke, even during the darkest moments of the pandemic when there was no indication things would get better.
“We enjoy working together,” said Sparrow Johnson. “We’re good at it, I think. And it’s such a huge part of our lives that we really were never like, ‘Let’s do something else. Let’s just go open up somewhere else and forget about this.’ It’s kind of unthinkable to me to do anything else.”