Every Wednesday night at the Elks Lodge #339 in the Northside, the Banjo Club, a neighborhood staple since the late 80s, performs banjo music for a lively crowd.
By Sophia Mastroianni
Young hipsters and vibrant elders sing, applaud and praise the Banjo Club performers in the dining hall at the Elks Lodge #339 in the Northside. They’re each attempting to find an available seat while enjoying rhythmic tunes and cheap beer.
“[Banjo Night] is a real focal point that brings a lot of people together of all ages,” said Jeff Wagner, three-year Elks Club member and Observatory Hill resident. Wagner is celebrating his 60th birthday tonight at the lodge. “There’s a real vibe here, a real energy and the age diversity is really cool.”
The Elks Club hosts Banjo Night every Wednesday, where guests can appreciate the authentic sound of 1920s style banjo music while sipping on a dollar pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Many guests also grab a partner to dance with, swaying to the old timey tunes, red-faced and giddy.
“The more you drink, the better we sound,” said co-founder of the club, Norman Azinger, with a laugh.
The audience does have an impressive age multiplicity, but so do the banjo players. Nineteen-year-old Nico Chiodi has been a Banjo Club member for over 13 years, he said.
“When I listen to music on my own . . . it’s pretty much modern rock like punk or folk rock,” said Chiodi. “[But] this is the music of my childhood in a sense. I play and get my fill of it every week.”
The non-profit, volunteer-run Banjo Club, originally founded in December 1988 by Frank Rossi, has donated over $100,000, money the club made from charging modest entrance fees for its shows, to local Pittsburgh charities. Chris Fennimore, host of the local cooking show QED Cooks and Banjo Club member said owners of venues used to think less of musicians if they didn’t ask for money.
“[People] think very little of you if you don’t charge them, they’re funny about that,” said Fennimore. “Every year we gave the money to charity.”
The club wants to get more young people interested in playing and performing to keep the motion of the music going.
“Some of us have gotten old in the last 30 years,” said 80-year-old Azinger, cracking a smile. “I wish it would keep going . . . [and] enough people have an interest in it.”
Wagner believes in the momentum Banjo Night provides, and thinks people are changing their perception of Pittsburgh through events like it.
“Banjo Club and Elks Club is part of the rebirth of Northside,” Wagner said. “You will still find people saying ‘Oh, Pittsburgh, that’s a dark smoky town,’ and the Northside still has that old reputation. I think this is all part of changing that.”