MitchThere are four of us in a taxi crossing lower Manhattan and I'm with Mitch Borden, soul of Fat Cat and Small's -- the latter venue legendary as the place the best New York Jazz musicians go to test their chops and jam out 'til sunrise… But wait, let's back up...

About 20 minutes earlier I had stopped by Fat Cat to see if Mitch might be up for the impromptu interview he had promised me four nights previous. He emerged from his office, a painting in hand. "You that interview guy? Can't do it now," he intoned with a dissonance simultaneously gruff and pleasantly polite, "Gotta run to a friend's restaurant opening in a few minutes." He held up the painting. "You like it?"

Before I could answer he was aready pointing out a turtle lamp he had built earlier that day. "I found all these parts on the street. I'm a dumpster diver and a garbage picker. I have an eye -- someone said I have a "queer" eye, don't know what that means. But you know, I like to put things together like this lamp."

And for the next 15 minutes, switching gears without thought, Mitch showed off his Fat Cat music space -- as of April 1st he has full creative control -- his eyes were lighting up like a child as he explained the stories behind the extensive and eclectic collection of knick-knacks that decorate it: the "magical desert", a sphinx, a devil, a Star War doll embracing a Ken doll -- every knick-knack a universe unto its own…

So there we are, the four of us in a taxi now -- because spur of the moment Mitch had invited us along to the opening -- and a horrible recognition descends upon me. All these years, I realized, I'd been completely deluded by the "Smallian" vibe into believing I actually knew something about Jazz. Just because Josh Redmond and Ryan Keiser, so close I could have touched them, had rocked my world one 4am spring night. Just because I'd experienced that "so intimate and comfortable you're in your own living room" magic time after time. Just because I'd felt the same grievous loss so many other New Yorkers had experienced the day we heard Small's had shut it's doors in May 2004 and the same inexplicable joy when we heard it had risen again this past March.

So I'm sitting there in the front seat and I'm thinking I don't even know a tenor sax from a clarinet! What the hell was I thinking?! ? And it's precisely at that moment – of course it's at that moment – that Mitch's curiously multi-timbred voice reaches through the window and grabs me by the nape of my panicking neck, "So, are you going to turn that tape recorder on and get started with this interview or what?"

"We're in a taxi, Mitch" I stutter as I scramble through my notes and then drop them to my lap in despair.

"Yeah?" he replies. "So?"

This is a nightmare. I babble on a few moments more and then it hits me all at once. He'd just showed me. Yes, it's all about the music. Of course it's all about the music! But it's also about the places that music takes us. So many people love Jazz because it takes them to places they can't find on their own; the same places Mitch Borden goes every day just by being Mitch.

By the time our conversation ends, we've riffed cross town in a taxi, back and forth on 14th street, completely lost, and into the restaurant where we are met by his indelibly sweet high-school-aged daughter and wife of almost 25 years who I realize intuitively almost no one even bothers to imagine he has.

"Tell me Mitch," I say as the taxi driver's cell phone tingle tangles and a siren screams by…

Tell me about the turtles and the magical desert and the sphinxes and devils and Ken dolls…
I think there's like a Pizza world where, like, Pizzas go on vacation and then go to the People Parlor so that the Pizzas can eat real people. I mean, I know it's all a joke, but you know, it's important to me for there to be a Pizza world. Things like that.

Like a Pizza Heaven where they go after getting eaten? Or do you mean like an alternate reality?
I think there's an alternate reality, yeah. For me at least, I don't fit into the regular job market and I get bored easily so I fantasize a lot. A long time ago I read a book called Flatland and that's where I got this idea that in a different dimension things look much different. I think there's a Doughnut world as well as a Pizza world.

And a sheep world and an ant world and…?
Oh yeah, and especially the Turtles. Because they go slower and they live longer and they have a different perspective. Everybody's excited about we gotta do this now. Now a land tortoise lives about 250 years… they don't have to do anything now.

Are you going for some purposeful reaction against the hectic New York City vibe?
It would be nice if I could get out of that vibe, but I'm in it as well. I like to do a lot of things in one day.

Hurry up slowly?
Yeah, exactly. Get a lot of things done each day but… well, you know, that's why I like Small's a lot. It's an alternate shift -- definitely the swing shift. I mean, when we started I was learning along with everybody else because it was kind of out of the book, there weren't any guidelines to go by. So each day we just kind of learned together. But the most fantastic thing is, it was all about just make it last. Just make it last a really long time. Make it last until the sun comes up -- so that when the jam session is over and you get out of there you see these people waking up, and they're getting ready to work, they're all nice and fresh… and we're all just all kind of burnt out.

Or tired?
I had a lot of experiences in the past that helped me with that. I was a night nurse, so I was used to that… staying up all night, taking dozes here and there and knowing how to keep things under control.

So… Small's at dawn, Fat Cat with it's knick-knacks… would it be fair to call you a "collector of alternate realities"?
I think that's a compliment, but I don't think I can live up to that compliment right now. I was looking at one of Wassily Kandinsky's posters in my office. He's one of my heroes and he wrote that great book, something about Spirituality and Art – and his point was that art is like an alternate reality, it's a part of our souls.

Let's talk about the old Small's. You were dedicated to maintaining your vibe, on your own terms, and not selling out. You had the whole BYOB aspect. …
I actually goofed that up. I tried to get a liquor license and I gave a bunch of money to this guy that just took my money because he saw me coming. I'm just naïve. I quickly grew up and became a New Yorker. I had to become a tough guy because, you know, in the beginning I was approached by a lot of shady business dealers.

But now, it's really funny. I'm in a very good position where I have a reputation that's even bigger than even I am and people think "well, there's the famous crazy guy." It's great. I don't even have to introduce myself to people. They just know about me, talk about me… in whispers.

Do you take it as a compliment when people call you crazy?
Yes, I take it as a great compliment. As long as I'm harmless anyway… well, I'm not altogether harmless.

Why do you work the door at Small's? Don't you want to hear the music?
The way I set up the business is that you have to be an owner operator, give yourself a salary. ‘Cause there isn't a big profit for the owner who doesn't work. It's out of necessity.

I do try to listen to the music. But I'd rather play it. You know, when you listen to someone else… musicians are always trying to get ideas or inspired, and so I'm always trying to do that. But then like really listening? That's a meditative trance you have to get into and that's hard working the door. I guess I should take a day off someday and go to my own club.

What instrument do you play?
The violin. I annoy a lot of people, especially the musicians, but the average person thinks it sounds pretty good.

That brings us to the famously flawless chops musicians need to have to play Small's. I was in there last Saturday and saw a sax player hang his head in shame. He looked like his grandmother had just scolded him.
I used to play Jazz violin in San Francisco. I lived there for 13 years. Then I come to New York and I realized I can't play at all. This is what happens with New York, you get to New York and you realize, wow, the competition is just like 5 notches higher than you would ever believe. It's a major drain for the rest of the world. All the jazz players from all over come here.

So, yeah, I realized I couldn't play at all. In the New York Bebop school, you gotta know all the chords in every song and then you have to know the melodies you play over those chords. And I never play like that. I just play free jazz stuff that you hear on the West Coast. And so I kind of realized that I better just play classical violin. But I'm starting to pick it up a little bit. I play a couple of Charlie Parker songs. I'm trying to gain the respect of the musicians.

What have been some of your favorite moments at Small's?
Zaid Nasser (alto sax), Kurt Rosenwinkel (guitar), Grant Stewart (tenor sax), Jason Lindner (piano), Omer Avital (bass), Ari Roland (bass), Sacha Perry (piano), Chris Byars (tenor sax), others -- those are all musicans who got their start at Small's. Too many good moments to really even go there.

But, just hanging out with all the old guys, Frank Hewitt, Harry Whitaker, Tommy Turrnetine, Al Colton, Arnie Lawrence, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Lovelace, and Herman Foster and all those great guys… those were probably my favorite moments. For some reason when all the old guys heard about me they started coming around and every night there'd be, like, a powow. We'd all get around in a circle and they'd talk about anything, but mostly the old stories…

I was privy to that and I thought I was pretty cool, but you know, this made you even cooler.

Small's has always had a rep as the place musicians go when they want to keep it real…
Any jazz musician wants to play a real jazz club. Small's is one of the few jazz clubs where the focus is all on the musician. There's no bar scene, no food. It's all about the music. There are only a few clubs where it's all about the music. The Vanguard is one, a few others.

Some clubs have an overbearing policy, you know, "you do this and you do that." At Small's the policy is laissez faire; to let people feel that they're a big part of the decision process. To let the musicians kind of run the show as best they can in their own way.

Each night it's always been a little different because each band sets a different tone. I try not to interfere with anything. I've always tried to just get the rent paid -- that feels great -- and to keep the doors open so people can kind of feel relaxed. When I opened Small's I was looking for that feeling of anything could happen here because it was like "no one is in charge", so do whatever you want.

Word was that you turned down money to keep the old Small's open…
I always turn down money because there's usually strings attached. There was some money that I tuned down because I didn't want to reopen Small's right away. I wanted to put money into Fat Cat. And I did accept money from Nellie McKye, but I returned her first check because it was way too much.

I try to do things reasonably I don't like throwing good money after bad. I wouldn't mind it now that I'm back in the swing of things. I'd know what to do with it. But I would just spend it ion some big shows. We had a show at Fat Cat that lasted three days. There was a recording of it and all that and it cost 25 thousand dollars. Again, though, it was somebody else's money. You know, you get back 3 thousand dollars from the audience and you spend thereby 22 thousand.

How did Small's reopen?
Small's came back by popular demand. The guy who came in there wanted to try a Latin/Brazilian bar. I kept wooing him. And that lasted about 4 months. It's not a Latin street, a Latin area. Every day people would come in and say, let's get Small's going again. Finally he came to me. I was sitting in Fat Cat listening to a show and he sat down next to me and said "Okay, let's do it." I went in there and built the stage and put the beautiful piano in there. It didn't take long to get it going again. The very first night and every night since has been a success.

So you're not actually the owner of Small's?
The guy's so happy I'm making lots of money there he tells everyone I'm still the owner and it's same as before. It's kind of nice. I have the best of both worlds. Now I don't have to go through lawsuits all the time.

Where did Fat Cat come from?
I saw it coming, the demise of Small's. It really was falling apart and it kind of caved in on me financially and actually. So in October of 2000 I opened Fat Cat.

I pushed my way in there -- I tried to get in a lot of places and start the music, say to the owners, oh, I'll have a band here. We'll start late. It won't interfere with your business, we'll charge a cover… I've been kicked out of more places than not, but somehow the pool hall kept me there. I built the room and I did a good job so it worked out. And now some musicians, there's a few, but mostly Noah Sapir, have gotten in there and purchased the lease -- it's going to go as an installment plan. It's a lot of money, maybe not for a regular business man, but for us it is -- just putting in the alarm system is 40 thousand dollars. We bought the lease as of April 1st, made a lot of changes. I have full control.

I feel a lot less pressure when we put a show in there because we have a lot of money coming in from all sides, you know, income from the pool and the ping pong, games. And a lot of people like to listen to music, but a lot of people also like to dance. We can get both. The place holds 350 people and we can fill it.

Small's and Fat Cat, they've both got the Mitch Borden vibe. Is there going to be a difference between their legacies when people look back at them down the line?
I'm actually trying to make them the same. You can go back and forth for one cover. So if you go to Small's you can go to Black Cat for free. It's sort of the same club. Fat Cat grew out of Small's -- the problem was the lines at Small's were so large that the neighbores were complaining. The line would be an hour long wait and there would be drinking and fun and partying; the line became it's own entity in itself, and so I thought all these people waiting, they could be listening to a show. And that's how Fat Cat kind of started. It's just the big Small's. It's Big's.

What's your philosophy for what makes a successful music venue?
What I don't like is those bands that play one set and then kick everybody out and then play the exact same music again. It's too formal. You don't get an intimate contact with the musicians like we do at Small's or Fat Cat.

It should be like a factory. During the day you have rehearsals and the musicians do sessions there and they get better and better. Then they play the show at night, which is always a little more nervous and tenuous. If you can make a smooth transition from the sessions during the day to playing those two, three sets at night and stay really relaxed, I think that would be the ideal situation.

[Ed. Note: Small's is located at 183 West 10th Street @ 7th Ave. | 212-929-7565]

Interview by Raphie Frank