Interview With Lee Kostrinsky (Poet, Musician, Owner of Smalls Jazz Club)

Interview with Lee Kostinsky at Small’s Jazz Club in New York City

Monday, December 28, 2009

During the interview Lee gets up periodically to handle the door because on this peculiar night, the doorman Mitch was absent. Also during the interview Larry Ham Trio is performing their first set of the night.

A: What I am interested in is your perspective. You’ve been in the scene. The writing scene, the music scene and you’ve recently come into this jazz club. Where do you see them going? Where do you see the direction of jazz and poetry? What’s going on in the now?

K: Well first off, it’s really important to know that New York City is the epicenter of jazz and poetry. That seems to vanishing somewhat. I’ve been a musician my whole life, I did that before I owned smalls, I was never a businessman. I was a teacher, a bass player and a guitarist and I’ve written three books. I wasn’t a poet yet though, I had written some poetry but I was doing more straight up fiction. One of the reasons I got involved with Smalls was because my grandfather was a musician in the 20s. I never met him but I have his diaries and I read what he played and what the music was like and what the scene was like in the 20s. I know what it was like in the 50s by talking to people, I know what it was like in the 70s by talking to people and New York City is vanishing in many ways. Its been overtaken by corporations, by these faceless banks…well not “faceless” banks but their gobbling up the real estate people are not seeing what’s going on. So from a political side its huge because the heart of New York and the heart of our soul here is about life and music and  writing of course there’s other arts involved but for me its poetry, its jazz of course, it’s the center for jazz here especially in the West Village. I don’t wanna see another drug store here, I don’t wanna see another Chase bank, Dunkin’ Donuts etc, etc.  So that was my spark, to do something. I’ve been down at Smalls here a long time. I was used to hang out here back at the beginning….

(Lee steps out to handle the door. Periodically he gets up throughout the interview to charge $20  and greet folks as they enter his club)

A: You were at Smalls in the beginning…

K:Yeah yeah, I used to hang out down here with musicians when there wasn’t a bar. Mitch Borden is the creator of Smalls [and The Fat Cat]. He’s one of the last of the bohemians. He’s a guy whose into writing, into classical music, into poetry, into jazz.

A: Where is he now?

K: Mitch? Right today, his mother died. That’s why I’m sitting here at the door. He’s usually ALWAYS here, never takes a day off. He owned Smalls for 10 years, it didn’t have a bar. And it became infamous. You could hang out here like the old day so of New York. People would hang out and play till 10:00 in the morning. Mitch helped start Norah Jones’ career. Started Kurt Rosenwinkel’s career. Brad Mehldau’s career. Mitch also had poetry back then, I didn’t know that but he did have poetry back then as well. And Smalls became famous because of Mitch’s vision…[Lee gets up] So ughh..Mitch stared Smalls and it became infamous because of its relaxed vibe. Someone isn’t going to chase you out after one set. You can just come in and hang in for one night. (whispering during Bass solo) ——It was a place of freedom and then things changed. They kinda closed down and…this is my parnter Spike. So Spike and I came back 3 years ago and after a series of miracles when Smalls really should have gone away, it didn’t go away. We brought it back.

A: Had you guys know each other before?

K: Yeah, musicians in the scene. It was kinda like lunatics running the asylum.. It was interesting, I later found out this place had a long history. It was the original Cafe Wah? Hendrix was here. Lenny Bruce was here. Dylan played here. This place was also called “Lenny’s Hidaway” in the 70s. There’s a huge tradition here. So when Mitch closed Smalls down it was dead, their was sheet rock, the place was gone, and I came down here before Spike, with another partner. Nobody was doing anything about it! It was some weird fate. Everyone was writing on the bathroom walls:”Smalls Is Dead”. I had no money at all but I came down and tried my best. I should mention that I worked the door at Fat Cat and I help start the music at Fat Cat with Mitch so I had a little it of experience. And miraculously through a series of events that I wont go into, nothing short of a miracle we got it back March 1st of 2007.

Anyways, going back to the point of “whats going on here…” Its that jazz and poetry and like husband and wife or brother and sister and always have been. It’s weird that you have a jazz club without a poetry club or without some kind of experimental thing going on. I find that the icing on the cake is Smalls Books. Started last year with my first poetry book “Why Pat Cooks” and my partner in crime with Smalls Books is George Guida. He’s a great guy. We’ve got a lot of interesting things lined up for 2010.

People have been slowly but surely finding out about here because “how cool?”. We do a feature from 5-7 every other Saturday. And some of the jazz guys have been getting involved too. We’ve got top of the line musicians. And that’s it really. For me, I want to keep writing. I am coming out with 2 novels. Smalls books is going. Spike’s running a record company, Live At Smalls. So between the poetry and record company we’re trying to keep the relationship, the marriage in all things going. Obviously people know this place as a jazz club. People are coming here to hear music, but their coming here to hear poetry as well. It’s really important for New York, I always make this speech at every poetry event, “not on my watch!” I’m not going to allow the current administration in this city and all the corporate cronies who want to sterilize this city. I’m 43 years old, I remember somewhat what it was like in the late 80s to be here. And it wasnt like this. . Its important! This is the furnace man! The West Village! New York City. Greenwich Village. The Bowery Poetry room is doing it and some other places around town. That’s what it’s about.

A: Obviously the marriage is here in the clubs but what about the bandstand. How often do the musicians and poets collaborate?

K: Its coming together more. I think, in a way some jazz musician, some of them look down on poetry a bit. I think everyone’s looking’ down on poetry. I think the musical form, rap has taken over and exploded into this urban poetry. Traditional poetry has taken a back-seat. And I notice here a lot of my crowd here is an older crowd. And I’ve seen some younger people trickle down but a lot more will trickle down for slams. I’ve tried to stay away from poetry slam here even though as of next here we may try some to get some more kids in the club. To be honest, I feel that slam has kinda run its course. And I’d like to see younger people fall back to a more traditional form whether its haiku, prose, something.

And that’s really important about Smalls as well. We have all kinds of music but there is an emphasis on the traditional here. Again, that’s not in any way to squash the experimental! We love that. With poetry I feel the same way, George feels the same way too.

We don’t know really what we’re doing at all times. I think that’s a very important ingredient in anything you do. If you’re improvising as a musician, or as a poet. You gotta go with it. You don’t know what you’re doing but at the same time be well read aware of the history.

A: Absolutely. I know that at my music school, Florida State, we emphasize teaching the tradition while other schools are more focused on pushing the genre or emphasizing the modern. And what I value is what we learn, be-bop and swing…(Lee gets up to serve the door)

K: Yeah its important. I guess everybody goes thought it. The beats when through this. They had that heritage and that turning point.

A: So where is it now?

K: I think we’re turning back towards a traditional. Basically because of the slam, and because of hip-hop. Because of the way…

A: What about the poetry’s content?

(things trail off here as Lee tends to the door more and goes searching for Harry Whittacker’s cat.

A: What was the last collaboration you saw on the bandstand?

K: Oh, oh! Adam Birnbaum, he’s  a great piano player.

A: How did it lay out?

K: He did something interesting. He did a Monday night [just jazz]. He came down, he’s one of the most prominent piano players. Julliard trained, Monk competition….he did the works of this guy, a whole performance piece put to the poems. And I was very impressed by it, he did it here on his gig.  As opposed to doing something on the poetry night.

Harry Wittacker also. He did worked with Roberta Flack, Jimi Hendrix, Earth Wind & Fire. He’s one of the last of the great soul, funk, jazz  geniuses. And he came in a lot and did a poetry thing on the main show [Saturday Night] called “The Witch & The Warlock” which was this poetry thing…Harry’s an older musician but he’s the most “here and now” of any musician I know. It’s interesting you ask that. I’m also a little sensitive to it. I don’t want to make it cheesy. I don’t want jazz…

A: You don’t want bongo drums…

K: Exactly! And it’s very difficult for me because I’ve had guys come down here with didgeridoo’s and do the poetry thing. I’m trying to balance the acts. Unless the jazz musicians decide to add-on the narrative and ask to come down like Adam or Harry. I wanna make sure the quality is there. See what I’m saying? I don’t want it to fall in the land of cheese.

A: From what I’ve been able to gather is that the poets are most of the time, more influenced by the musicians, rather than vice versa. Thats at least how it was. Kerouac would hear Zoot Sims and would think “how can I write like that”? You don’t often hear musicians say “hey man, I like the rhythm of that poem, I’m gonna write music to that”. I wanna know if that’s happening!

K: Well that’s interesting you say that. For me, I’m both and its important for me to explore music. For me whenever I’m writing I have to listen to classical music. If I listen to jazz its gets all muddy. For me, its such a mixture that its hard to separate it. I could be listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers then listen to Coltrane. Or listen to Mahler and all of a sudden I’m writing poetry in silence. You know what I’m saying? In my first poetry book “Why Pat Cooks?”, the whole point was to make sure I didn’t…I wrote a couple of poems about Small’s. I didn’t want to cross that line of:  I was “sitting around listening to jazz musicians, writing poetry”

A: That’s what it used to be though, right?

K: I guess, I guess.

A: It sounds that way to me.

K: I think back to guys like Bukowski, he’s always talking about listening to classical music on his radio. So, that’s true. that’s true. One thing we have to remember that’s interesting is that both jazz and poetry at this time now have been elevated to a certain level of “museum-ship”. You know, [gestures to his club] you sit quietly listening to jazz. While as back in the day it was rowdy music. And sometimes that angered me. And poetry shouldn’t just be in the ivory towers.

I just moved down from 122nd street. Where Kerouac is from, Ginsberg and George Carlin is from up there. Boroughs and all those guys used to hang up there. And now you don’t have a scene there at all. You have the ivory towers of Columbia. It’s a weird thing because since the past 40-50 years…It’s dangerous not to pull these things in by its lox. The way we do that is to kind of look to the side, let the organic nature of it take place. If somebody wants to go have poetry set to jazz, cool, but I don’t want to set it up. Its like having peanut butter and jelly, but you may not want to mix it. We’ll see what happens now. That’s what Smalls is all about. Everything is growing here. You don’t know what’s gonna come out of here.

This guy came down and read a poem based on a Coltrane solo. If you can do a poem in the same form as a Coltrane solo, cool. If you can pull it off. He was Israeli and came from Norway. His dream was to come down here and do it, it was pretty cool. Older poets come out…but in Rap the slams, its like “bam bam bop bop”….

A: I’m not interested in researching that…

K: Why?

A: It isn’t really the jazz I’m looking for. I’m looking for the swing and the be-bop…but at the same time it is a balance battle. Jazz has moved in so many directions.

K: Other poets come out and its more of a performance.

A: Why don’t I dig it? The problem is that t I can see it as Jazz Poetry, I don’t necessarily love it but I recognize it. That’s just me.

K: The form is different. Not as complicated….

A: Yeah, and the content isn’t there, but maybe because of the music. Could it be that since jazz is about reflecting the human voice, or at least improvisation is the extension of the human voice and making new melodies off that. While as hip-hop is more focused on the rhythm more so than the melody.

K: It all makes sense in how we move forward in the future with poetry and jazz. Where is it gonna go?  What will we open up to?

A: People dig this! [Gesturing towards the club’s audience]

K: Yes…because of these things [gesturing towards the camera hanging from the ceiling]. This stream is happening now. People can watch this anywhere. We have one sponsor, Brother Thelonious Beer.

A: So technology is benefiting Smalls?

K: I am not completely sold on it. But I invested in the idea because you can’t completely look away from it. At there is an advantage. People in Norway, Japan. We get 50,000 hits from Google Analytics every month. You could be hanging out in Alaska and you want to watch jazz, come watch Smalls. Cozy up in your fireplace with Smalls. That’s good technology. They come down here and they feel a little weird because they don’t know where they should sit. This is our niche. We don’t have comfy seats; it’s about being an individual. That creates the vibe. And in that vibe anything can happen. I don’t know what the future might hold. Poetry’s poetry and jazz is jazz. But it survives here. That’s why it’s so important. Chicago’s got the blues and New Orleans’ got pockets everybody comes to New York, you know the Vanguard and the Blue Note to hear jazz. You’re not going to go to a sake bar in LA and hear jazz, well you might, you should! This is the core.

A: We can’t stop the momentum. Its inevitable. The model “T” had to be replaced…

K: You know what’s important! Is that its outside the music, but is IS the music. Its outside the poetry but it IS the poetry. It is the environment. We can just go and put it in the museum, we are the foot soldiers here! You go to other clubs like Dizzy or The Blue Note or even The Vanguard, you’re not going to be able to hang out till 4:00 and listen to jazz on Saturdays. We are the foot soldiers. And that could be one of the main ingredients that can keep jazz and poetry alive.

Another thing is New York is getting chopped off with these tapas bars. It’s important that we stay here and fight for the city. Places opening up and closing down, which is happening in a lot of cities but this is the greatest city in the world.  People come here from other countries and they just don’t want to make money. We want to make something beautiful. It’s important to be here and stay here and want to be here! I think Smalls is like the CBGB’s of jazz.

A: So is there a new “beat” generation? [laughs]

K: [chuckles] Beat generation! Beat-off…I don’t know if there’s a beat generation anymore. There’s a beat-box generation. It doesn’t bother me though; I’m not worried about the labels. I don’t want to label anything.

A: Recently there was a performance in of Kerouac’s Blues & Hikus. With an all-star jazz group Joe Lovano, Josh Redman, Christian McBride…This performance was one of the seeds that got this project going in my head. Why now? Why would the National Endowment of the Arts sponsor this?

K: Why?

A: Is it that they’re trying to revive?

K: Because of the classic form. Kerouac now is the classic form. We have to be careful but I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I mean after the Right of Spring there was a riot. That’s the just they way things are. But at the same time, we have to preserve these things and that’s the function of Smalls and Smalls Books, etc.

A: Wrapping things up. Here, I feel like the arts are colliding and especially with you. You’re not only bridging this gap but facilitating the interaction between artists. What I had in my mind was more of a “on the band-stand collaboration” and I want to see that happen! Thank you for your time.

K: It’s interesting you say that, just talking has kind of inspired me. Its weird! I think it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen. I want to make sure it’s the right musicians. I don’t want to put these things together that spew cheese.

One response to “Interview With Lee Kostrinsky (Poet, Musician, Owner of Smalls Jazz Club)

  1. Interesting article indeed!

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