From the mid-1930s until the early 1960s, jazz was one of the nation's most popular styles of music. Rock 'n' roll and other genres ultimately eclipsed jazz's mainstream appeal. But there is a place in New York City where one can still experience the spirit, the inventiveness and the community that was jazz in its heyday.
It was well past midnight one cool summer evening, but the jazz was hot as the noonday sun downstairs at Smalls, where the Dwayne Clemons Quintet held the stage. The hole-in-the-wall club in the heart of Greenwich Village is where many of the world's greatest jazz musicians come to play.
"…You come down here and see that these guys are sincerely living on that creative energy, that spark," said Smalls co-founder and guiding bohemian Mitchell Borden, while nodding in time to the music. "That spark is what keeps them going. When they dig deep and pull up something that is so beyond them, that's jazz."
Forging musical, magical connections
Nearby, Harry Whitaker, a jazz piano veteran, was sitting in his accustomed chair and taking in the music with half-shut eyes. He wistfully recalls when he came to New York from Detroit. The year was 1961, and New York was America's jazz mecca.
"I was in [the] Birdland [jazz club] every single night. I nearly killed myself," he recalled with a laugh. "But there was music all over… and the music was so intelligent!"
Whitaker vividly remembers hearing now-legendary greats like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins.
"We learned from the masters!" he said.
Whitaker is a strong advocate for the "give and take" between musicians that he says live jazz requires.
"A lot of groups - and a lot of people - don't listen to each other. They are just listening to what they're doing."
In contrast, he added, when band members are "in sync," they are "in the zone."
"If you are really connected to the other musicians, that's what makes the music cohesive. That's what creates this thing."
Music that makes you think
Now in his 60s, Whitaker still performs with his quartet, which includes Stacy Dillard on the saxophone, Renee Marie Cruz on bass, and Brandon Lee Lewis on drums. All agree that the quality jazz one can hear at Smalls is far more than mere entertainment.
"This music is celestial," says Lewis. "It's eternal. It's like you just grab it in the air. It's like you 're breathing it. That's what's so beautiful about it, and that's why it's so fun."
Lewis, who is 28 years old, acknowledged that most people his age overwhelmingly prefer hip-hop, rock 'n' roll and country music to jazz, but that he is "OK with that."
"Smalls is one of the few places in New York where it encourages people to get in touch with that part of their soul that causes them to think about things. And society in this day and age do not want anybody to think," Lewis says.
To him, jazz improvisation is like a shared code.
"We're actually talking. And this is a community place where somebody can get in touch with the community, for real!"
A community committed to authenticity
The jazz community at Smalls has made all the difference to Kyoko Oyobe, a promising young jazz composer and pianist from Japan who recorded her first CD - Cooking at Smalls - at the club.
"It's a special place for me. Everybody gathers like a family. That makes me feel warm," said Oyobe, who lives in a tiny apartment upstairs and had just finished practicing on the club's piano.
Oyobe especially like the huge variety of musicians - from the famous to the unsung, from the foreign-born to local - who come to Smalls to play, to hang out, and to create music, both for audiences and for each other.
"That makes [a] special vibe, a New York vibe, an American vibe and [a] human vibe!" added Oyobe happily.
In the opinion of Smalls co-owner Lee Kostrinsky, the club is one of the last vestiges of a more lively and interesting New York. He believes that corporate culture and mass media are sanitizing the Big Apple.
"And it's not going to happen on my watch!"
Kostrinsky says there can be a certain coldness to New York, and that jazz that "brings things to life."
"It's blue and it's black and it's white and it's green. It's all these colors, but it's still under the gray fog rolling over the Brooklyn Bridge up to Harlem and back," he says, adding, perhaps unnecessarily, "and I love it!"
Jazz fans love it, too.
"This is the place to come," said 19-year-old Brian, who had come with to the club with his wife Lisa to celebrate their first wedding anniversary.
"Jazz all night," swooned Lisa. "Oh, it's perfect!"
Both said they appreciated the friendliness of the Smalls staff and clientele. But it's the music itself that keeps them coming back.
"We listen to jazz all the time - at work and in the car…" said Lisa. "To us, it's just music in its most natural form."
Natural, free flowing, urbane and democratic, jazz often has been called America's classical music.
"In fact," said Smalls founder Mitchell Borden, "jazz lies under everyone's fingers. The piano has all the notes, true. But jazz comes from the heart. Go for it with all your glory! It has to be that way each and every time. Jazz symbolizes that attitude."
Smalls Jazz Club offers a live webcast of its performers, generally between 2330 UTC and 730 UTC the following morning at http://www.smallsjazzclub.com/index.cfm.