The co-owner of Minton’s, a jazz supper club in Harlem, and the former chef/owner of New York City restaurants Café Beulah, Sweet Ophelia's, Shoebox Cafe, and The Cecil, shares his favorite tunes to listen to while entertaining.

By Nina Friend
September 17, 2020
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Smalls sits on the sofa in his living room. The center painting is by Smalls’ longtime friend, artist Stanley Casselman. “Guests are always mesmerized at what a unique piece it is,” Smalls said. “It creates a very special ambiance and it bathes the room in warmth, lending a feeling of intimacy.”
Kelly Marshall

Alexander Smalls is a host extraordinaire, and his entertaining style reflects the person and artist he is. Smalls is a chef, cookbook author, and restaurateur, but he’s also a Grammy- and Tony Award-winning opera singer. So for Smalls, pairing music with a meal is an art. There is no dinner party without a dinner party playlist.

“Music is energy, life, love,” Smalls said. “It stimulates my imagination and feeds my spirit, excites the task as well as the sheer pleasure I get from preparing, cooking, and entertaining in my home, especially for friends and family. I couldn't live, breathe, or eat without music.”

Here, Smalls shares a playlist broken into two categories: his favorite songs to listen to while cooking and his favorite songs to listen to while dining. (Find the full Spotify playlist here.) Smalls chose these songs with this set of autumnal recipes in mind, from an October 2020 Food & Wine story all about the inimitable dinner parties Smalls throws at his home in Harlem. Whether you’re cooking for a socially distanced group or making a feast for a solo night in, these songs—and Smalls’ recipes—will lift your spirits.

Smalls’ Favorite Songs for Cooking:

“Sinnerman” by Nina Simone

“Nina sets the mood for me. This song is full of energy and urgency, and her tonality and commanding presence is motivating. It gets my creative juices going.”

“I Got You (I Feel Good)” by James Brown 

“From the Godfather of Soul, a Georgia boy bringing the soulfire of southern life in his music with soulful spirit, this is a tune of celebration and joy, which is how I feel when I cook for my friends and guests. I feel good!”

“Vissi d’arte” by Leontyne Price 

“‘I lived for art, I lived for love.’ The first lines of this impassioned aria, sung by the great soprano Leontyne Price, who like Nina Simone serves up the essence of southern goodness, inspires me to translate her artistic expression as an ingredient on my plate.”

 “Good and Terrible” by Ulysses Owens Jr.

“This is an exciting, upbeat, energizing piece with lots of percussion. I’m partial to this because the writer and artist is also the producer on my new recording that I just finished. His energy, musical intuitiveness, and grace when he plays just excites me. It’s a real percussion piece, so when you’re in the kitchen and banging it out, it’s a perfect beat.”

“I Say a Little Prayer” by Aretha Franklin

“The first note of Aretha Franklin’s voice, just wow. From that first note, she really gets you going. It’s a very rhythmic and soulful gospel-y song, smooth with bursts of excitement in her voice. When I’m cooking, I really like to feel like energy is flowing, and this is a good pick-me-up song.”

“How I Got Over” by Mahalia Jackson 

“This song is like when you’re cooking and you take a little taste to see if you’re on point, and you’re savoring this thing and you throw your head back and you think, how I got over. All the flavors came together, like this big vocal presence of Mahalia Jackson.”

“Mood Indigo” by Jason Moran and Charles Lloyd

“This is biscuit making music. I'm tipping around in the kitchen armed with buttermilk, flour, butter, baking powder, and eggs, mixing, beating, rolling, cutting, twisting to the sassy horn and rhythmic punctuation of the piano. This song brings order and joy to me, even when I'm not making biscuits!”

“Proud Mary” by Tina Turner 

“Big wheels keep on turning, keep moving, you’re in it, you’re almost there. Cooking is like a marathon and you have that energy flowing. Cooking should be fun and people should understand that it’s not a chore. If it’s a chore for you, you probably shouldn’t be cooking. Proud Mary helps you keep it going.”

“Mustang Sally” by Wilson Pickett

“This is a bit of nostalgia, especially for me because it reminds me of my father’s jukebox at his nightclub, and Wilson Pickett was all over that jukebox.”

“Respect” by Aretha Franklin 

“Respect the sauce. Respect the spices. Respect the produce. Give the food some respect.”

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” by Gladys Knight

“Gladys Knight serves up a wonderful southern ambiance. She’s sort of the epitome of the soul southern singer that is very melodic and at the same time her tones are brilliant and bright and her beat feeds you and helps you keep it going, because cooking is a journey. You need that pulse and that beat.”

“La vie en rose” by Grace Jones

“Grace’s music tends to have a little bit of a Caribbean sound, and it’s very rhythmic. She speaks and sings kind of like elongated rap. It’s very lyrical and forceful, it’s strong and commanding. When you start to get a little off of your game, Grace can bring you back. I knew Grace in Paris, she set my shirt on fire at a disco. It was the most expensive shirt I had ever bought, it was this new thing called polyester silk. Her cigarette caught my shirt on fire, and that polyester went up in flames, and I’m here to tell the story, scarless. Grace is no stranger to fire.”

“Crazy In Love” by Beyoncé 

“Beyoncé is of course a contemporary of these great women. She’s sassy and brilliant. This is a moment when you might put the spoon down and start dancing a little bit. She helps you stay in the moment and feed the energy.”

“Fallin’” by Alicia Keys

“Alicia is the soulful activist voice. There’s a little bit of an activist, and there’s a storyteller and a preacher in her songs. She has a way of engaging you and calming you down at the same time. After being so electrified by many of these other singers, it’s a nice little mellow moment in the kitchen.”

“Let's Stay Together” by Al Green 

“Again a mellow moment. Al brings a southern consciousness. Since most of my food is based in the African diaspora, it’s those mellow tones and notes and endearing riffs that keep me enlightened and inspired.”

“I’m Every Woman” by Whitney Houston

“Then there is the great Whitney Houston. I’m every woman. Wow. that song was of course written by Ashford & Simpson who are dear friends, and hallmarks of the sounds of Motown. Whitney revists Motown in this piece, and Motown becomes the ambiance in your kitchen, from Ashford & Simpson to The Supremes to The Temptations, and she brings all that alive.”

“You Send Me” by Aretha Franklin 

“Sultry, mellow, cooling out. By now, most of your cooking should have been done. It’s simmering time. Everything is set and ready to go. Aretha prepares me to get out of the kitchen.”

“Feeling Good” by Shola Adisa-Farrar

“I'm setting my table and feeling good, dancing between the china cabinet and linen drawer, arranging the flowers and placing my mother's wedding silverware on beautiful African prints from my travels. I'm simply feeling good.”

“Tight” by Jazzmeia Horn 

“Jazzmeia Horn gives me energy to make that final exit. A smart, engaging, young Sarah Vaughan kind of flavor. She helps mellow me out.”

“The Jazz in You” by Patti LaBelle

“And then I’m done with Patti LaBelle. Patti comes in and makes the joyful noise and allows you to transcend all that cooking and get yourself ready for the evening. Time to get those clothes on, put the finishing touches on the apartment and dining room table, and get ready to meet your guests.”

Smalls’ Favorite Songs for Dining:

 “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye 

“Marvin Gay is soulful rapture, smooth and sassy, fresh. His tunes make everybody comfortable, relaxed, and ready to mingle. Part familiar and part whimsical, this is a feel-good song!”

“Come Sunday” by Dee Dee Bridgewater 

“Dee Dee's lyrical voice is engaging, easy, and gentle. Unobtrusive yet inviting. This is the perfect song to enhance the ambiance and inspire a thought or two.”

“Here’s to Life” by Shirley Horn 

“Shirley Horn is an extraordinary vocalist and musician. This song is a welcome salute, a wonderful way of greeting people and bringing them in. The sweet lullaby of ‘Come Sunday’ mellows everyone out, and then you have a song like ‘Here’s to Life’ and all the joy it brings. It’s a wonderful moment to nurture each other in something very positive and beautiful.”

“Look for the Silver Lining” by Leslie Odom Jr.

“This is another way to keep positivity flowing through the evening. The richness of Leslie Odom Jr.’s voice settles you into your seat and keeps those wonderful vibrations going.”

“Lush Life” by John Coltrane 

“John Coltrane has a sort of nostalgia. The lyricism is so today but it’s rooted in an old cultural expression that anchors the evening and the gathering.”

“Stormy Weather” by Lena Horne 

“It’s dazzling. Lena Horne was glamorous, her singing was glamorous, and glamour brings such a beautiful nuance to a gathering with good food and satisfying drinks.”

“God Bless the Child” by Gregory Porter

“Gregory Porter’s rich baritone is anchored in a cultural expression of the south. It creates a wonderful cradle for the evening.”

“I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Nancy Wilson

“We then graduate into 'I Can’t Make You Love Me.' Nancy Wilson’s voice is like a soulful cello. She has a way of grabbing your soul and allowing you to feel vulnerable and open to the dynamics of the wonderful group that you’re spending time with.”

“The Sweetest Thing” by Lauryn Hill 

“Lauryn Hill in much the same way. I can see us graduating through courses of food. I like to serve family style, because I like food to have a big presence. I like people to feel like they deserve the food, and also to be deserving of the food. That’s what family style does, it lays out a bounty, and we are all connected through the food.”

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross

“A brilliant, beautiful love song that helps to serve more love. The food is love, and we’re all wallowing in all of that loveliness. Ashford & Simpson wrote this song, and Diana, Queen of Motown, made it famous. Her fragile but engaging vocal clarity was contagious.”

“A Song for You” by Donny Hathaway 

“Donny Hathaway with his really smooth serene tones. That’s gorgeous piano tones and moves, this music allows people not only to engage with each other but to feel supported.”

“Killing Me Softly with His Song” by Roberta Flack

“Roberta and I have a birthday a couple of days apart. I’ve known her for years, and we have the same voice teacher. She has that brilliant piano playing, similar to Nina Simone, and classical training. She puts together storytelling in such a brilliant, beautiful way.”

“Unforgettable” by Nat King Cole 

“‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ mellows into ‘Unforgettable,’ absolutely one of the most smooth, luxurious sounds a human has ever made. ‘Unforgettable’ is one of the most unforgettable songs, constantly reminding all of us who gather how fortunate and blessed we are.”

“Somewhere in My Lifetime” by Phyllis Hyman 

“An extraordinary musical force who had the ability to marry old style with new style, lush and embracing, which is why she marries well into Luther Vandross.”

“I (Who Have Nothing)” by Luther Vandross 

“He is the ultimate crooner. This dinner party is lasting for hours, as you can imagine. The songs are just keeping us there and Luther gives us this rich rendition. By this time we are well into the entrée, maybe the second entrée. It really is sublime.”

“Rainy Night in Georgia” by Randy Crawford 

“She brings a warm mystical anxiety to the musical setting. A very raw and direct vocal sound that really makes an impression.”

“What a Wonderful World” Jon Batiste 

“Louis Armstrong made this song very popular, but we’re starting to wind into dessert and into feeling the grace and how fortunate we all are to be able to share great food and company and music.”

“Monday” by Cecile McLorin Salvant

“A jazz prodigy, gorgeous voice, soulful. And yet she also is very spiritual and very easy on the spirit. She just kind of glides in and offers a sweetness.”

"Summertime" by Kathleen Battle

“This brilliant lullaby twist of nostalgia goes well with dessert and a single barrel whisky, bourbon or brandy. The clear passion and tonality of Kathleen Battles voice singing Gershwin's classic is simply that...classic!”

“The Very Thought of You” by Wynton Marsalis

“Wynton is such a rebel, with too many causes. Sort of the bad boy of classical music who is the savior of jazz. This is kind of a palate changer. He starts to transition us beautifully in the evening because no matter what Wynton plays it always has a naughtiness to it. So with the sweetness of the other tunes, he starts to graduate us into the evening being full and over.”

“Just for a Thrill” by Alicia Hall Moran

“This song is for that point during dinner when the dessert dishes are collected and the last of the after-dinner drinks are consumed, that heartfelt moment when you've consumed the best of the night.”

“Beau Soir” by Jessye Norman

“Beau Soir is kind of like a deep chocolate cake. It’s rich and unforgiving. It is a standout moment after such a wonderful meal.”

“I Feel Like Going Home” by Queen Esther

“A contemporary soulful jazz and bluegrass singer, Queen Esther is very versatile. She has a very forceful voice. It’s a brilliant way to wrap up the evening as people start to say their goodbyes and grab their to-go bags, since I always make too much food.”

Get the full playlist here.