AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 31 YEARS
Sitting in a chair just outside the entrance of the Ava Lounge, Garland Rose is reminded of the old days when clubs dotted the streets of East Liberty and the energy and sounds of trumpets and trombones, saxophones and drums filled the air in a joyful cacophony.
Rose doesn't know if Ava will ever have the lore of, say, Birdie Dunlap's Hurricane, the preeminent home for jazz organ groups, or the old Crawford Grill in the Hill District, where iconoclasts with such names as Max, Monk, Miles and Mingus performed on a weekly basis.
That was a different era, and, frankly, Rose isn't into revisionist history.
|Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette photos
Sean Jones performs at Ava Lounge in East Liberty last week.
Click photo for larger image.
Every Monday for the past month, the Highland Avenue lounge known mostly for programming underground urban and global music has hosted jazz fans and up-and-coming musicians.
On a recent Monday night, the first set belonged to pianist Howie Alexander's Trio, a house band that also features bassist Paul Thompson and drummer James Johnson III. After a brief intermission, other musicians were invited to perform in a jam session, a time-honored tradition in jazz.
Such sessions are the ultimate incubator for young players, a place where musical knowledge is passed from older players to youngsters.
"There's some great young musicians coming here," said Rose, who grew up and still lives in East Liberty, which is undergoing a bit of a renaissance. "This is the only place we have to hear jazz music in East Liberty."
Attendance has grown each week, mostly through word of mouth. Last Monday, it was nearly packed, roughly 80 to 100 people.
|The Ava crowd watches Sean Jones sitting in with the Howie Alexander Trio.
Click photo for larger image.
The decor strikes a balance between New Age artsy and Mississippi juke joint. Except for a few lights here and there, it's dark enough to be an opium den.
The bartender is really friendly, strutting around in cowgirl boots. The patrons are a cultural mix, speaking to one another with ease, whether it's at the bar or on one the couches that rest against a wall.
"It's been great to see the crowds grow each week," said Dr. Nelson E. Harrison, a psychologist and trombonist. "Musically, the house band is as good as any on the planet. Something else that is interesting, the musicians are up close and accessible. People come here to listen to music, and when they are talking, the music is part of their conversation. It's been positively pleasant, diverse and inter-generational."
Justin Strong, co-owner of Ava and the nearby Shadow Lounge with Tim Guthrie, said the idea to program a night of jazz came after several conversations with Alexander and Gwyneth Gaul, the event's promoter.
"Gwyneth just took the bull by the horns and ran with it," said Strong. "She gave me a list of things that I needed to get done. So I let Howie put the band together and Gwyneth promote it, and we provided the venue."
Gaul, who works as a fund-raiser at Duquesne University, is a huge jazz fan and has long had a vision to open a jazz club.
She was determined to either open one herself or find a partner to go in to business with her.
She approached a few people, developed a business plan, spoke to several developers and met with community groups to determine the need.
Just as things were taking shape, one of the potential investors decided to go in a different direction.
So, instead of opening a new club with great lights, sight lines and state-of-the-art acoustics, she decided to start small, build something and watch it grow.
At that point, she approached Strong, who decided Monday nights would be ideal.
"He said, 'Run with it,' " said Gaul, who laughs when asked how much money she has to promote the event. "I don't have a budget, but it has grown each week. It's been fun watching people come together in this not so fancy place to enjoy the music."
Gaul, who grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, said her long-term goal is open a dedicated jazz venue, which will also feature an educational components.
"As a young professional, I was on a mission to leave Pittsburgh," she continued. "But I have decided to stick around and plant some roots. This is something that I wanted to do for sometime. I want to grow it into something meaningful."
Until then, jazz fans can enjoy Ava.
"It's a great venue, and the price is perfect," said Mike Colavita. "I live in the neighborhood and it's great to be able to walk over."
Ava Bar & Lounge is at 126 S. Highland Ave. and Baum Boulevard; 412-363-8277. Shows begin at 8 p.m.