Photo by Brady Langmann

The debut of Steeltown Jazz Storytellers program took place Feb. 21 at James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy in Historic Deutschtown. The monthly performances aim to present the best jazz music the area has to offer as well as highlight the impact that Pittsburgh has had on the scene itself. 

By Brady Langmann

With a lineup full of Grammy Award-winning artists and several talented up-and-comers, the debut of Steeltown Jazz Storytellers program Feb. 21 at James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy in Historic Deutschtown proved that the Jazz Age is still alive, and swinging, in Pittsburgh.

The event idea originated from James Street co-owner Adam Johnston, as well as Kesha M Pate, the founder of Ashek Media. For two years, the duo imagined the possibility of holding a series of shows that both honored Pittsburgh’s rich jazz history, yet featured its current stars both young and old.

A few months ago, they pitched the idea to the Heinz History Center Volunteer Ambassador Program, who shared their excitement for the project and agreed to present it with them. For the presentation, California University of Pennsylvania’s Music Department produced a series of videos, each one featuring a Pittsburgh jazz legend.  90.5 WESA’s Bob Studebaker, the “Voice of Jazz in Pittsburgh,” signed up to emcee, while finding musicians to play was the easiest part.

“All of the musicians we talked to were really excited and wanted to be on board,” Pate recalled.  “We’re talking about showcasing the history of jazz, talking about the current community of jazz in Pittsburgh that is so deep and so amazing and so talented, and then cultivating the future of jazz in Pittsburgh, to make sure that people still are supporting jazz  10, 20, 30 years from now and that young people that are coming up have the opportunity to really experience this in a way that you don’t really get in another city.”

The night included stunning performances from jazz stars Roger Humphries (drums), Dwayne Dolphin (bass), Tony Campbell (saxophone), and Howie Alexander (keyboards).  Opening for the established performers were fast-rising instrumentalists Abby Gross (saxophone), Nick DeCesere (keyboards), Beni Rossman (bass), and Jevon Rushton (drums), who were just as impressive.

“That’s the important part too, that forward part, the future of it,” Johnston said, stressing the importance of highlighting the young players.  “Because so many people are stuck in the logic of jazz was something that happened, and not something that is happening.”

Before the music, however, the show began with a video presentation on Billy Strayhorn, a Pittsburgher who was known for his masterful compositions and collaborations with Duke Ellington.  Afterward, the performing musicians participated in a Q&A led by Studebaker, who called attention to Pittsburgh’s integral role in jazz history.

“You got like every five to seven years through the history of jazz, there was a point of departure where jazz evolved and grew into something else, and pretty often, if not always, there was a Pittsburgher as the catalyst of the change, and I don’t think any other city can make that claim,” Studebaker said.  “There’s something special about what happened here.”

While February’s Steeltown Jazz Storytellers featured separate performances from the older and newer musicians, Johnston promises a multigenerational band for the next effort on March 21st.  For Pate, a native Chicagoan who was drawn to Pittsburgh for its spirited community and booming arts scene, she’s just happy to see Pittsburgh’s one-of-a-kind jazz tradition continuing at such a unique bar as James Street.

“You’re guaranteed that there’s going to be jazz music playing here, and this is the last place in Pittsburgh that that’s true,” Pate said.  “There’s jazz at other places on Tuesday, or maybe they have it every other Thursday, or whatever.  But this is where jazz lives, and the Northside is where jazz lives in Pittsburgh today, and that’s what’s really important.”

Brady Langmann is a student writer from Pitt.