The Absolute Experience

I've never lived in New York City, but I've visited often, especially the Upper West Side, where my wife's grandparents lived for many years. There's a little jazz bar there, on Broadway near 106th Street, aka Duke Ellington Boulevard.

Augie's Jazz Bar, as it was called until its demise late in the last century, is apparently famous. Smoke, a movie starring Harvey Keitel, with a screenplay by the prolific and serious novelist Paul Auster, is rumored to be based on the life of the bar's original owner.

Augie's was a special place, with a sort of authenticity that is all too rare these days. Augie's never gave the impression that it was designed by marketers, or anyone else, for that matter. Augie's just was.

For a jazz bar, authentic means several things. First, it means noise and bad acoustics. Glass, or something else that vibrates in sympathy with the loud low notes, is an absolute requirement. People must talk too much during sets. It helps if the place is far too hot. And there must be enough cigarette smoke to shorten your life by a measurable amount.

Augie's had all this and more. The place reeked of authenticity, atmosphere, and stale cigarettes. A night of good jazz at Augie's was an unstructured, even brutal assault on the senses. Eyes burned. Noses dripped. It was an unforgettable experience, one you're unlikely to replicate in very many places, and especially in a climate-controlled listening room.

Augie's is no more, having passed into history along with the rest of the 20th century. But, like a phoenix, a new jazz bar rose from Augie's many overfilled ashtrays, and the new place is as much a product of the new century as Augie's was of the middle of the old one. Smoke, as the new owners dubbed the place after the aforementioned film, was much less smoky than Augie's ever was—even before July 2003, when smoking in New York City bars was banned.

Smoke is contrived where Augie's was authentic, but it's contrived in the best possible way. The new owners have kept a good bit of Augie's-like atmosphere even as they've substituted careful, understated design for the old place's unplanned idiosyncrasy. Where Augie's was what it was (to paraphrase Popeye and Robert Penn Warren), Smoke is precisely what its owners have chosen to make it: a great place to listen to live jazz.

Smoke's owners have thought hard about the bar's acoustics. Thanks to deep carpet, velvet curtains, and who knows what else, those acoustics are very good. Some outstanding jazz musicians play the now-smokeless Smoke, which can make for an amazing experience in such a small place; Smoke seats fewer than 100 souls, I'd wager. Slide Hampton has played there. I've heard that Wynton Marsalis has, too. Jane Monheit is listed on Smoke's website as a regular, along with Jim Willis and dozens of other great musicians. As I write this, after midnight on a Saturday night in June, the Eddie Henderson Quartet should be into their last set of the night, assuming they started on time.

Smoke's formula—contrived but low-key atmosphere, a choreographed appearance of authenticity, good acoustics—is likely to seem familiar to most modern audiophiles, who know better than most how contrivance—even obsessive control—is essential to the production of compelling aural experiences. Where Augie's was an old, classic tube amp of a place, Smoke is the jazz-bar equivalent of a well-designed modern solid-state amplifier: not clinical or sterile, but with a good bit of science behind it and a definite emphasis on the honest delivery of the notes. Where Augie's imposed itself strongly—by nature, not design—on the experience of listening to live jazz, Smoke provides your beverage of choice and a comfortable seat—often a sound-absorbing, overstuffed sofa—then gets out of the way, allowing the musicians to communicate directly with you. That, most audiophiles would agree, is the best thing a music medium, whether electronic or architectural, can do. If there's such a thing as a high-end jazz bar, Smoke qualifies.

Last call is past, the music is over, and the bartender is sweeping the floor. So let's stagger home to your listening room, where many of the same considerations apply. Not unlike the smoke, noise, and distortion at Augie's, many home factors—the recording, the medium, your system, the domestic environment—impose themselves between you and the musicians . . . who, being far away, busy, or dead, can hardly be expected to deliver a truly live experience, especially at this hour. An excellent high-end music system can minimize some of those intermediaries, but not all of them.

Smoke is a better place to hear music than Augie's ever was, yet Augie's delivered a sensory experience that Smoke can't match, and wisely doesn't try to. Good recordings, similarly, deliver rich sonic experiences, the musical value supplemented by what you might call aural history. West Coast jazz from the late 1950s and early '60s, for instance, has its own pleasing sound, distinct from the sounds of other times and places. Indeed, individual engineers have their own unique sounds, an aspect of this hobby I'm just beginning to explore. By abandoning the quixotic quest for the sound of live performance, we allow ourselves to appreciate the art of the recording engineer and the history of recorded sound. There's a lot more going on in a quality music recording than the music, and all have been preserved for posterity on well-cared-for original LPs and good-quality modern reissues.

Forget about communing with the musicians; with even the best high-end equipment, the most we can ever hope for is to get close to the recording. And that is not a bad thing at all.