Where There’s Smoke, There’s This Couple

Paul Stache and Molly Sparrow Johnson on their labor of love, Smoke Jazz Club, which is reopening its indoor space on July 21

| 18 Jul 2022 | 09:13

Paul Stache and Molly Sparrow Johnson met at Smoke Jazz Club and are now a part of its storied history. Stache, a native of Germany, bought the venue, formerly named Augie’s, in April of 1999, and Johnson, who hails from Michigan, began bartending there that October after suffering a knee injury that ended her ballet career.

The now-married couple manage to host some of the biggest names in jazz in “one of the smaller rooms in town” for live music. When the pandemic hit, the pair, who lives a few blocks from the club at 106th and Broadway, had to recreate that comfortable, living room feel they were known for by neighbors and tourists alike.

They pivoted their multifaceted business, running not only a jazz club, but a restaurant and bar, by hosting live stream concerts in the summer of 2020. That September, they put up outdoor greenhouses where diners could sit and watch the performers, who played in their windows. Once the tables were taken, people just stood on the street, listening. “One night we had one working lane on Broadway because people were just standing there looking for live music with tears in their eyes,” Stache recalled.

This served as a powerful reminder of the importance of live music, especially during difficult moments. Another indication of the neighborhood’s need for their club came from the outpouring of support from their community, which included customers writing letters to elected officials to get them help.

On July 21, after two years of being closed inside, Smoke is reopening its famed doors with an expanded space, including a new lounge and a larger stage. With the new lounge area, the duo hopes to turn even more people into jazz lovers, since guests can now come in without buying a ticket. “If they hear the music that’s spilling through the door from the club, if it strikes their musical appetite, they might poke a head in and check it out,” Stache said.

Paul, I read that you were at the club on your first night visiting New York.

Paul: That is correct. It was in 1992. Not this club, it was a club here called Augie’s previously, before we opened Smoke. I arrived at Kennedy Airport and then I went to Augie’s and saw Junior Cook, Cecil Payne and Arthur Taylor. Then I worked there in the mid-nineties. I was trying to get a job as a bartender or a server, but they wouldn’t give me that job, so they offered me a job as a dishwasher in the kitchen and I did that for a little while.

What are the best and worst aspects to working with your spouse?

Molly: We’ve been working together for so long. We worked together as friends, while dating, while married and while having two kids. I would say the best thing is we’re on the same page about a lot of things. We can multitask well. Unfortunately, that means sometimes working all the time, so we have to be careful to carve out some time that we are not working. What do you think, Paul?

Paul: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think what we’re doing is sort of a little bit of a three-headed monster. We’ve got a jazz club and a restaurant and a bar, so ... and a record label, so maybe it’s four heads. So some people might think what we’re doing is a little crazy. And I don’t think this would be possible if we weren’t doing it together, like, for instance, if Molly would be doing this and I would have a normal job. I would probably say, “Molly, you’re nuts, this is not gonna to work,” or vice versa. I think Molly is right, I think the downside is that when people have regular 9 to 5 jobs, they have the ability to turn their phone off, they don’t talk about work over dinnertime. That is a challenge at times, but we have two wonderful kids who frequently remind us that there’s many other things in the world, so that really prevents us from just talking about jazz or grill problems or deliveries.

Tell us an interesting fact about the club’s history.

Paul: George Coleman opened the club as the first band to ever play Smoke in 1999. And his place in jazz history is obviously a very, very important one. He’s a true legend with his work with Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock and B.B. King. I mean, he’s just a real jazz giant and the fact that we had him perform at Smoke in 1999 for the grand opening was a huge coup and it just set the bar musically really high. George was also the act who reopened the club after our short shutdown after 9/11 when the city was essentially closed for a while and we didn’t have music. And we are incredibly lucky that for the grand reopening of Smoke, George Coleman once again will be performing. He’s 87 years old now. But we’ve been in touch with him throughout the pandemic and he kept saying, “Well whenever you’re ready, we’ll be ready. I can’t wait.” And so when you look at that, historically, that’s pretty special for us.

How did you pivot during the pandemic?

Molly: One big way and the first way was that we started livestreaming in the summer of 2020. And that was a really great way for us to start employing the musicians again safely and a way to get the music out to people. And it ended up being a really great way to reach people internationally who were really hungry to hear music and really happy to be able to connect with other music lovers. The next way was the outdoor dining, we had shows on the sidewalk, essentially. We set up little greenhouses for people to dine in. And we opened up the café-style windows of the club and put the band there.

Paul: Yeah, the band played in the window and we had concerts. It was pretty incredible. We had people lining up, the tables were gone immediately. And then you just had people standing on the sidewalk. We had a night or two where people were standing on Broadway. It was powerful. Not that we needed the reminder, because there were also times we did it for purely selfish reasons, we needed the music just as much as everybody else. There were all these wonderful musicians who needed to play, so we would have done it regardless.

Do you have any background in jazz?

Paul: Molly comes from a very musical family. Her father and brother are professional musicians and I grew up as the son of a jazz fan. I grew up in West Berlin and the allies were stationed there at the time and there was a lot of American jazz in Berlin. And my dad took me to jazz clubs probably two, three times a week from as young as I was able to walk. So coming to New York and hearing American jazz, it was one of the things that made me feel at home in New York almost immediately because it was the soundtrack of my childhood. And being able to meet some of the musicians initially and then later on, when we opened Smoke, to book some of them that are listed on my father’s LP collection ... we feel lucky what we’re able to do in New York with such incredible talent here.

What are the difficult parts to hosting live music? Can you name any mishaps that stand out?

Molly: I do think, especially with live music, that sometimes it’s part of the fun and audiences are really game about things that happen because it’s a story, it’s the experience.

Paul: I was thinking about this story the other day and telling a friend ... the talent pool of just incredible, legendary musicians in New York is so deep. What we do would be very hard to do anywhere else in the world because everybody’s here. And I remember we had a Benny Golson concert scheduled and he calls me up two days before the gig and says, “You know, I got really bad news ... Buster Williams, unfortunately, his flight got canceled and he’s not gonna be able to play bass on the weekend. I’m like, “Oh no, what are you gonna do?” He goes, “It’s ok, I called Ron Carter, he’s gonna make it.” Those are the improvisations that are only really possible here.