A 'Missionary' of Jazz

Club co-owner "Spike" Wilner talks about the mystical aspects of improvisational music - and the practical realities of running an arts business

27 Dec 2019 | 10:23

The fee at Smalls Jazz Club is $20 for most, but owner Michael “Spike” Wilner says, “Angels, Wizards and Holy People are always free.” Wilner and his partner Mitch Borden also own Mezzrow, a sister-club across the street from Smalls on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village.

For Wilner, the bottom line is to preserve jazz culture and create spaces where music and artists can thrive. Also a pianist, he credits his club’s success with his musician’s perspective. Jonny King, an old friend of Wilner and fellow pianist, described him as “a missionary in the jazz community.” Wilner is enthralled by the mystical components of improvisational jazz and never hesitated to pursue the art professionally, so it comes as no surprise to learn that Wilner’s family tree includes Moses Sofer, a Kabbalist rabbi, and the abstract impressionist painter Marie Wilner.

Straus News spoke with Wilner about his story and the business of jazz.

What’s the feeling when one enters Smalls or Mezzrow?

When you arrive at either Smalls or Mezzrow, it feels like you’re coming home. Both clubs have a very warm feeling. They’re convivial, and there’s always great music playing. You see your friends, your family, and everyone’s happy to see you. The clubs are places where people gather together, listen to music, and share their day with each other.

What drew you to jazz, and when did you know you wanted to pursue the art professionally?

I never really thought about the professional aspect, but I always wanted to spend my life listening to and studying the music. I loved the piano from age 12. My mom had a piano in the house. When I was in second grade, she started me on lessons. But I was pretty much self-taught, auto-didactic. I listened to a lot of music. I got really interested in ragtime and Scott Joplin, so I studied and played that a lot.

In high school I started to meet other kids who were into jazz. I joined the high school jazz group. By the time I got to college, I was deep in it. I went to the New School for Social Research jazz program. I got a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Music and started playing professionally. When I was a kid, there were a lot of jazz clubs in this city, and it was quite a large scene.

How did you come to run Smalls?

Smalls was open when I started playing professionally. It was a place we played in and hung out at a lot. I got to know the owner, Mitch Borden, quite well. We became very good friends. I never intended to be a club owner, and I kind of still don’t really want to do it, but I did it because Smalls was closing.

Mitch was looking for somebody to be his partner and invest in Smalls. I thought it was the only way I could keep my gig, so I decided to go for it. I owned an apartment in Harlem that I decided to mortgage. I dove in headfirst into the jazz club business and had to take some time to really learn what I was doing. I’m still learning.

Why did you decide to open up a second club and name it after Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow?

We opened Mezzrow five years ago. Smalls was so popular that we couldn’t accommodate all the people. We wanted a place to hold people while they were waiting for their show at Smalls. But Mezzrow ended up taking on a life of its own, as its own club.

Mezz Mezzrow was a clarinet player from Chicago in the 1920s. He was best friends with Louis Armstrong. He wrote a great book called "Really the Blues: The Autobiography of Mezz Mezzrow." That book had a lot of impact on me. Mezzrow was a Jewish jazz guy who loved the music and culture around it, so I identified with him strongly. He also hung out right around here when there was another club in the neighborhood, in Mezzrow’s vicinity.

When so many jazz clubs have closed recently, why do you think yours are thriving?

The people who run jazz clubs generally don’t know what they’re doing. They have high expectations, financially, and they don’t understand the jazz scene. I run the clubs from the perspective of a musician rather than a business owner. Some of my choices haven’t made me a lot of money, but I have a lot of love for the music and the scene. I know everybody, who’s good and who’s not good, so the musical level at the clubs is very high at all times. Smalls kind of runs because we keep it so inexpensive.

We’re very conscientious of keeping a musical community in that space. Other clubs are very strict about who comes in and who doesn’t, who pays and who doesn’t. We’re very open to musicians coming in, so we let people in especially as it gets later. It’s an older way of thinking about jazz clubs. In the old days, they were more communal rather than, say, concert venues.

You have been compiling a jazz archive of performances at your clubs, which is now available on the Smalls Live website [smallslive.com]. What’s the genesis of that idea?

The archives came out of my desire to preserve the music. I put recording equipment in the club, so I could keep track of everything happening. It started to grow rapidly until it became clear that I needed to organize it. We decided to make it available to people. We have about 17,000 recordings and more than 4,000 musicians recorded. We devised a revenue share plan that we thought was the most fair for artists. Starting next year, we’re changing everything into a not for profit called the Smalls Live Foundation, to support our archive and the mission of running the club and supporting artists.

What would you say to someone who isn’t in the jazz world about why jazz is one of the greatest art forms?

Jazz has got two faces, the public face and the private face. The public face is the culture and the legends. The public face gets misunderstood the most. That’s the face where people talk about race or culture or style, though none of those things matter much. The real thing is the core, which is what most people miss.

The esoterica, the mystical side, is this very mysterious process by which jazz is played and musicians communicate with each other in a psychic fashion, rather than using words. Sometimes spontaneous things happen. If you’re a Zen Buddhist like myself you can recognize the very close similarity between Zen and jazz in terms of the spontaneity of the action; the bigger mind does the work rather than the conscious mind. That makes this music very special and rare, but that aspect is only for the indoctrinated.

How do you reconcile practicing jazz and maintaining its improvisational core?

I’m a Zen Buddhist, so I like to play as spontaneously as I can. But I spend time practicing the piano each day. I study classical music on my own. I love to play Beethoven, for example, but I won’t perform it. I perform at Smalls and Mezzrow each week, and this schedule keeps me focused on the music. I recently became a father; I have an eleven-month-old baby daughter now, and so I haven’t been touring.

I don’t think spending a lot of time writing tunes and preparing for records is really that good an idea. Most jazz musicians have too much time on their hands. A lot of them would be better if they got a job and played at night without practicing too much. Great jazz musicians can be great lawyers, great doctors. They can do anything they want, because it takes a high degree of mental skill to be a jazz musician.

This interview has been edited and condensed.