Lively jazz nights rekindle flame in Pittsburgh
A city that used to be a veritable hotbed of American Jazz, Pittsburgh has seen what could be described as a process of jazz atrophy. Cultural institutions like the August Wilson Center and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild feed off a legacy of jazz, not a vibrant scene.
Traditional venues, like CJ’s in the Strip District, have strict age restrictions (CJ’s is closed to patrons younger than 30) and prevent jazz from being experienced across generations. Additionally, WDUQ, formerly Pittsburgh’s only jazz radio station, changed to an NPR news station last year. There are simply not enough lively hubs for the cultivation of an innovative jazz scene in Pittsburgh.
In light of this seemingly atrophied jazz environment, two events in Pittsburgh reveal that the local contemporary jazz scene is rekindling: On Mondays, AVA Lounge in East Liberty hosts Interval Monday, and the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville hosts Space Exchange on Tuesdays.
On what is considered the week’s dead night for entertainment in Pittsburgh, AVA Lounge offers one of the hottest jazz jams, incorporating silent film projections and an open stage. The weekly session was founded by pianist Howie Alexander in July 2007, and is now known as the premier event for jazz music in Pittsburgh due to the local and nationally recognized talent it attracts.
Typically, the sessions consist of two sets. The first set belongs to the Interval Trio (Alexander, Paul Thompson, and James Johnson III), while the second set opens up the stage to musicians in the audience. The jam session features both jazz standards and original compositions, and resident DJ J. Malls (also known as Jason Molyneaux) spins classic jazz vinyl during breaks. A documentary-style web series, called The Interval Trio & Friends, is currently being produced that focuses on the lives and sessions of the musicians.
In contrast to the Interval Monday jam sessions, Space Exchange at the Thunderbird Cafe is marked by an approach that resembles a New York City artist residency, something rarely seen in Pittsburgh. Saxophonist Ben Opie, drummer Dave Throckmorton, guitarist Colter Harper, bassist Matt Booth, and guitarist/drummer Chris Parker are the core members of Space Exchange, and they collectively oversee the programming for the evenings.
In 2011, the group decided to approach Thunderbird Cafe owner John Pergal for a shot at a weekly residency. Because Pergal has supported the group’s past efforts, this collaboration seemed natural. However, the group has actively argued that Space Exchange neither be billed as a jazz event nor as a jam session. As a result, patrons won’t find musicians casually strolling in to display their skills in a specific genre. Rather, they will find a variety of ensembles associated with the core members, rotating in and out of the Thunderbird Cafe, waltzing across the boundaries of styles.
Aiming to develop a lasting presence in Pittsburgh, the group draws on the public interest in some of the collective’s established bands like Opie and Throckmorton’s Thoth Trio, Harper’s Rusted Root, and Opie’s audacious free jazz orchestra, Opek.
Given the history of Pittsburgh’s local jazz scene, events like Interval Monday and Space Exchange give hope for a playful and innovative scene in the future. As it stands, jazz enthusiasts need not fear a continued atrophy of the local scene. Jazz is happening; now it is up to the audiences to continue sharing the experience.
Future performances at Space Exchange will feature Opie performing the works of American composers Thelonius Monk, Anthony Braxton, and Ornette Coleman, alongside bassist Jeff Grubbs and Throckmorton’s “Book Exchange.”