It’s 8:30 on a Friday night in the basement of the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy. In the jazz world, that’s practically noon and it’s reflected in the sparse crowd. On stage is Ron Horton and OUTLET, with frontman Ron Horton on the trumpet.
He defiantly announces his presence with a blast of notes that erupt from his trumpet. His drummer, keyboardist, and guitarist follow his lead through his musical stylings.
AIN’T NO GONG SHOW
“Hey, are you headed down to James Street tonight? I might get down there around 11 after my rehearsal.”
The voice on the phone belongs to trumpet player Joe Badaczewski. He was calling me on the preceding Thursday night. I couldn’t make it down, but it just shows the nocturnal nature of the jazz scene in relation to the rest of the square world that I inhabit.
My initial phone interaction with Joe Badaczewski (who refers to himself as ‘Joe Bad’, which you would too if your last name was Badaczewski) was while he was driving the Turnpike back to Pittsburgh from New York City. Don’t worry, he was using his Bluetooth. The discussion got around to his favorite places that he has played in Pittsburgh.
“Well, CJ’s is where I learned to play for real,” he said of the now-closed jazz club that used to be on Penn Avenue in the Strip. I ask about Gullifty’s in Squirrel Hill, where I used to go see jazz from time to time (and eat great desserts), before it also closed in 2013. Joe Bad called it a “special place”. I asked about The Balcony, a legendary Shadyside restaurant and jazz club that closed in 1997, but he never had the chance to play there.
Nowadays, the two main venues that support live jazz with any regularity in Pittsburgh are James Street and Little E’s downtown.
BROAD STREET WALK
The pinkish-purplish stage lights cast an odd hue over Ron Horton as he has transitioned into more of an introspective, downbeat portion of his opening set. It’s not quite my tempo, but I can still appreciate it. For some in the basement portion of the restaurant, the music is simply background for their dinners. For others, it’s the main attraction.
The crowd is black, the crowd is white. The crowd is in their mid 20’s, mid 30’s, and then a set of patrons are able to sign up for AARP benefits.
When it comes to creating and maintaining an audience for jazz, that is the core function of a relatively new startup venture called Steeltown Jazz, which came into existence in January 2014. “Our goal is make more of an audience,” said Kesha Pate of Steeltown Jazz in a phone interview. When I asked what was difference between Steeltown and Lighthouse Arts, she explained that Lighthouse was formed by five musicians with the intent of trying to develop future jazz musicians and use education to promote this mission. The two entities are working the same issue of popularizing jazz, but from different sides of the aisle.
Up-and-coming saxophonist Abby Gross lamented the perception that jazz has among those who have never listened to it. “It’s viewed as unattainable. Some feel if you didn’t grow up with it, that you won’t understand it,” she said. But in her experience of “dragging friends out to shows”, they eventually pester her about tagging along to future shows.
Photographs line the walls of the basement at James Street with headshots of jazz greats, both past and present. With each of the three people I phone interviewed for this story, there was a heavy sigh and long pause when I asked them the simple question of “Who are the top jazz musicians in Pittsburgh right now?” Not because it was hard to think of a list, but rather because they were all worried about who they were going to leave off the list.
Each of them, without prompting, started off with Roger Humphries. The man is a living jazz legend that acts as the ligature between Pittsburgh’s past greatness of the Crawford Grill in the Hill District to its present state. The drummer has played all over the country and around the world. He’s sat in with Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver and countless others.
His seat at the table is at the place of honor, which is why the heading titles of this article are some of his song titles.
“I would say besides Roger, Tony Campbell, Howie Alexander, Dwayne Dolphin, Sean Jones of course,…I know I’m going to leave a bunch of people out,” said Ms. Pate.
“Roger, Dwayne Dolphin, Brett Williams, George Heid III sits in with my quartet, uh…Sean Jones…I could keep going on and on,” replied Ms. Gross.
“Oh man…that’s really hard. Roger Humphries and Sean Jones. Um…I’m going to leave a ton of people out,” said Mr. Badaczewski.
“We have monuments for athletes all over Pittsburgh. There’s the Andy Warhol Museum. Aside from the Strayhorn [Theater, in East Liberty], why aren’t there any monuments to celebrate the rich culture of jazz?” asked Ms. Pate.
“These guys are stopped on the street in Chicago and New York, overseas when they go, but they could walk into Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh and no one would recognize them,” she continued.
Joe Bad seems like a relentless tour hound, both as a player in other people’s bands and also his own outfit known as Chop Shop, as he mentioned playing in Singapore and Macau in recent times. But Abby Gross seemed to feel the invisible gravitational field of Pittsburgh that many have felt over the years. “Pittsburgh will always be home. I may move away for a short period, but I’ll always return for the scene and people in Pittsburgh.”
As a young musician, the 26-year old Gross has always appreciated the familial nature of the Pittsburgh jazz scene. “It’s quite beneficial to be young because the older musicians are interested in helping. They’re willing to take you under their wing. If you have a true passion for it, you can be 10 years old and they’ll still be willing.”
Joe Bad, 32, also referenced Sean Jones multiple times through our interview as a key person in his formative professional jazz upbringing. “I made a lot of connections through Sean,” he said of the artist who is now based out of Boston.
“We’re required to be character actors in other bands,” explained Joe Bad, “so it’s good to be personally invested in something.” That something is the modern jazz/funk collective called Chop Shop that he fronts. They just played up in New York City at some different venues. This past semester, Joe Bad became an adjunct professor of trumpet at Duquesne University.
That’s the same university that Abby Gross graduated from. She sits in with many musicians, but also fronts her own unit called the Abby Gross Quartet. Ms. Gross hopes that the funk/soul/jazz group will be able to press an EP next year and go on tour to support it after that. It’s a rotating supporting cast of “about 10 musicians, probably three pianists, two drummers, couple of bass players.” She started the Quartet when someone said, “Hey, I have a date open at James Street. You should put a quartet together.” And just like that, that’s how things form in the close-knit world of Pittsburgh jazz.
Ms. Gross plays both the alto and soprano saxophone, but she “feels that her true voice comes through” when she plays the soprano saxophone. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, whether through her own arrangements or the chance to play it in another band, she takes it.
THE NEXT STEP
So, what is the state of jazz in Pittsburgh in the year 2015? All three were very optimistic about it, while pining to see it continue to thrive in the future. Joe Bad mentioned the “depth in the scene” among musicians and how there is a distinctive Pittsburgh swing sound that aficionados pick up on when he plays in other cities.
“People expect jazz to be free, but these musicians all have to be able to earn a living, too,” said Ms. Pate. In a town like New Orleans, Chicago, or New York, a musician from those cities could carve out a decent living without every having to leave town. That’s not the case in Pittsburgh. To that end, Steeltown organizes an event every 3rd Saturday at James Street called the Steeltown Jazz Storytellers. There’s a panel discussion with some of Pittsburgh’s past, present, and future great jazz artists that’s followed by two hours of live jazz. The proceeds go to supporting the Pittsburgh scene and the preservation of Pittsburgh’s jazz heritage.
Have you listened to jazz and thought that it sounds like every musician is doing their own thing? Well that cacophany, that organized chaos, is an original American musical contribution to society, which is fitting for the at-times disorganized nature of our world. If you’re looking for an easy entre-vous into the jazz scene, drive to the North Side and find yourself migrating to the basement of the James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy on one of their designated jazz nights.
This city will forever be defined by steel, but the soundtrack of Pittsburgh’s history has a real jazz swing to it.