The last in-house show at Smoke Jazz Club on the Upper West Side has lingered in co-owner Paul Stache's mind for a long time now.

It took place on March 15th, 2020 – just a few days before all non-essential businesses were ordered to shut down in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in New York City.

Stache, who co-owns the bar with his wife Molly Sparrow Johnson, was understandably nervous.

"It was already clear that there was a very dangerous virus out there, and we were sort of holding our breath a little bit," he said, noting that several of that night's performers — which included legendary jazz bassist Ron Carter, pianist Kevin Hayes, and drummer Al Foster — were older musicians. "We were thinking, we've got to get through this weekend, and hopefully nobody will get sick."

They did indeed get through it — and then shut the club down entirely. Over the following months while the city was on PAUSE, the club was frozen in time as if that night never ended. Every time Stache and Johnson would come by the place, they'd find the band's instruments set up in the exact way they had left them.

"Molly and I would come to the club once a day to check on things, and that stage was just untouched, and it was very eerie in a way," he said. "There were times when we'd look at each other and say, there's a possibility that this was the last performance we had here."

The pandemic has disrupted the city's cultural milieu in myriad ways, but the city's jazz venues, which are reliant on the steady flow of in-person crowds, have been hit especially hard. In recent months, several major venues — including 55 Bar, Rue-B, and Jazz Standard — have been forced to shutter. When Smoke went dark for the bulk of 2021, it looked like it would become yet another piece of the city lost to the pandemic.

But thankfully, Smoke won't be preserved in amber for much longer. The venue, located at Broadway and 106th Street, is scheduled to fully reopen for the first time in more than two years on July 21st. And on top of that, it has expanded next door with a new bar/lounge and has upgraded the interior of its main club.

"We had a soundcheck the other day without an audience here, just to test the system," said Stache. "And when the band started playing, I started bawling because it was so emotional to hear the music again, I had to step out for a moment."

From Augie's to Smoke

While the main room — now referred to as “the listening room” — retains the same intimate ambiance as before, moving the bar next door into the lounge has opened up a huge amount of space. The stage has grown by 35 square feet, so musicians won't be liable to bump into each other's instruments. Previously, they could sit about 52 people inside the venue between the floor and the bar. Now, they will be able to fit about 90 people in the main room, plus another 35 inside the lounge.

The two rooms will be separated for now, so the lounge will be open to the neighborhood nightly, and if you want to see a show, you can pay for a ticket next door. The plan is for the venue to be open Thursdays through Sundays, while they're still deciding whether the lounge will be open every day.

These are the biggest changes to happen to the club since Stache, who was born and raised in the former West Berlin, first opened it in 1999. Prior to that, it was Augie’s Jazz Bar, which opened in the late '60s and became a mainstay of the neighborhood.

It held significant meaning for Stache as well: "When I moved to New York [in 1991], this space was Augie's, and it was the first bar that I ever stepped into, on the day that I arrived in NYC," he said. "And so there's a lot of history in this space."

He got a job there as a dishwasher a few years later, and eventually became a bartender. After Augie's closed down in 1998, Stache and his business partner at the time, Frank Christopher, seized the chance to take over the lease and continue its legacy with a new club. He wasn't legally allowed to keep the name Augie's, but he came up with a new name that still honored its eponymous former proprietor, Augusto “Gus” Cuartas.

"[Writer] Paul Auster was a regular here when he was at Columbia, and in the screenplay Smoke that he wrote, the character played by Harvey Keitel in that film is actually pretty closely based on Augie himself, and so it was a way for us to pay tribute to the history of the space in some way," Stache said.

Smoke Jazz Club opened on April 19th, 1999. That same year, Molly Sparrow Johnson was hired as a waitress at the club. She worked there for several years before she and Stache started dating; they married in 2011 and now have two children who they raised while running the place. Along the way, she became co-owner of Smoke, helping to manage the club and the venue's label Smoke Sessions Records.

"Every once in a while, I stand here and I'm like, I've spent over half of my life in this room," said Sparrow Johnson.

A photo of the lounge at Smoke Jazz Club

The Lounge

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Livestreams and sidewalk dining

Sometime before the pandemic began, the building's landlord approached Stache and Sparrow Johnson with an opportunity to lease the stores to Smoke's immediate left, which were previously occupied by a dry cleaner and law office.

"We weren't sure that we wanted it to be part of the club, that wasn't decided yet, we just knew that the spaces were vacant for a long time," said Stache. "And the landlord had approached us about it several times with some very attractive terms." They ultimately decided to take on the new spaces.

In June 2020, they sat down with an architect to try to figure out how they could eventually reopen the venue with all the COVID regulations and upgrades that would be necessary. They realized that because the bar took up over one-third of the room, they'd only be able to fit about 12 seats inside with social distancing.

Thanks to SBA loans and their relationship with their landlord, who understood when they weren't able to pay rent on time in the early days of the pandemic, they were able to begin planning for the renovation that both spaces would need.

In the meantime, they didn't want to leave Smoke completely barren. "To have a room sit here quiet that has so much history and so much music history, it was just terribly depressing for us and for the musicians," Stache said.

Later in the summer of 2020, like so many venues around the city, they launched a livestream series and cautiously expanded to sidewalk seating. On certain weekend nights, they opened up the facade of the venue and placed the musicians right by the window to play for diners and passersby on the street. During some of those first performances, there were so many people gathered on the sidewalk, they began to spill out into the bus lane and onto Broadway.

"You looked around, and people were standing there with tears in their eyes just looking for live music," said Stache. "That was powerful, it was emotional for us. It was one of those moments where you realize, you've got to find a way. This is not going to be easy, this is probably going to take a while, but we've got to find a way to get the music going again."

The logistics of continuing to have outdoor dining and music got too complicated as the weather got colder in the fall. Between that and the second COVID wave that hit that winter, they stopped doing both, and turned their attention more fully toward modifying the inside of the venue for the bulk of 2021.

They say they plan to continue producing livestreams at least a few times a week — both because they've developed an international audience, and because a significant portion of their audience is older or might not be ready to go to indoor concerts yet. They hope to also continue with some sidewalk dining, but aren't sure whether they'll open the venue's facade up again.

A photo of co-owner Paul Stache at Smoke Jazz Club

Co-owner Paul Stache

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Co-owner Paul Stache
Scott Lynch/Gothamist

A cultural Mecca

The venue’s first night back on July 21st will feature saxophonist George Coleman, who has a long history with the venue. The George Coleman Quartet was the first band that played at Smoke when it opened in 1999; they were the first to perform at the club after 9/11 closed it down for several days; and they performed there during the summer of 2020.

"George is 87 now, still sounds great,” Stache said. “Having him come in once again after this long period — now the longest period ever that we’ve been closed — and reopen it, I can’t think of anything more fitting.”

Coleman, who has worked with the likes of Miles Davis, Max Roach and Herbie Hancock, said he was relieved that Smoke is back in business.

"The great staff and owners always make everyone feel at home, and it's an institution that both fans and musicians know will always have great music," he said. "In fact, I will often stop by Smoke when I'm not working to just enjoy the music, just like a fan!”

There are at least a dozen other artists and groups booked through the summer, including the Al Foster Quintet, Charles McPherson, Vijay Iyer, Mary Stallings, Bill Charlap and Bobby Watson. Stache is optimistic about turnout, because he thinks people are starved for live experiences.

"As New Yorkers we are so spoiled in many ways ⁠— because we're in this cultural Mecca, we can have anything we want at our fingertips at all times," he said. "There's lots of venues and lots of music. All of a sudden, you take that away for a period of time and people realize how important that is to their lives. We take things for granted when we have them all the time.”

As for scaremongering about the state of the city – a view emanating from right-wing newspapers, hyperventilating scolds and occasionally the mayor — Stache and Sparrow Johnson aren't too concerned. They view rising rents and the proliferation of vacant stores – which started years before the pandemic, but were exacerbated by it – as among the biggest problems facing New York.

"We see ourselves as part of the solution," Stache said. "There's a lot of creative people in New York, and a lot of people who want to open up small businesses. The red tape is no joke – this whole process took as long as it did partly because of that.”

Sparrow Johnson can remember how different the city was 25 years ago. She moved here in 1996, and lived in pre-gentrification Williamsburg.

"Times Square was seedy and scary, and you didn't walk into the north woods in Central Park," she said. "It's not like that now. Crime may be up, but it's nothing like it was then. And I know it's all relative, but as somebody who remembers being told not to walk east of Amsterdam Avenue, I think everything's fine. Everything will be fine."

Which is partially why the couple never even considered giving up on Smoke, even during the darkest moments of the pandemic when there was no indication things would get better.

"We enjoy working together," said Sparrow Johnson. "We're good at it, I think. And it's such a huge part of our lives that we really were never like, 'Let's do something else. Let's just go open up somewhere else and forget about this.' It's kind of unthinkable to me to do anything else."

Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that Frank Christopher is no longer a business partner in Smoke Jazz Club. The club's operating days have also been corrected. It is open Thursday-Sunday.