Frank Rossi, left, leads members of the Pittsburg Banjo Club in a ragtime tune. (Photo/Henry Clay Webster)
When bragging about the Northside’s many cultural institutions to out-of-towners, many locals forget to mention one that has appeared on a weekly basis for more than twenty years.
The Pittsburgh Banjo Club has been playing free public concerts on Wednesday nights in Deutschtown so long that without many of its members hailing from this side of town, many think of them as a Northside band.
Their weekly gig at the Elks Club on Cedar Avenue, which is actually disguised as a rehearsal, often brings in a crowd of more than 100.
Recently, the group, consisting of 87 members but only ever fielding about 20 for a performance, has seen a new popularity among the younger arts crowd.
“All of the sudden within the last year, the young crowd has started to pop in,” said band leader Frank Rossi. “The James Street Café was strictly an older crowd, mostly jazz fans,” he added, alluding to where they used to play.
Rossi estimated the average age of the crowd at the Elks Club at 65, but more and more of the college-aged crowd is filtering in. For a certain segment of the beard-growing, vintage dress wearing counterculture, often called “hipsters,” there isn’t a better Wednesday night hangout in the city.
And though most aren’t avid banjo enthusiasts, the option of attending a banjo night, with its focus on old-time music, has a kind of exotic appeal to a generation raised on electronic, over-produced songwriting.
Not bothered by hanging out with folks their grandparents’ age, most of these twenty-somethings say they’re intrigued by the old-fashioned vibe. And the $1.50 beers, of course, don’t hurt either.
CMU art grad Magali Duzant falls into this crowd.
“It lacks the pretension other places have, and the beer is cheap,” Duzant said, and that her interest in banjo night lies strongly in the atmosphere.
“[Banjo music] may not be something I have in my car, but it’s nice music, and you can listen and hear yourself talk at the same time.”
Duzant and her friend, Michelle Lee, sat hunched over the bar, drinking their Yuengling out of plastic cups. “I come here once a month,” Lee said, adding that it was nice to get outside of Lawrenceville, the neighborhood that most notably caters to the hipster crowd.
One factor that endears the band is Rossi’s talent at making breezy small talk with the audience during and between each song.
On this night in June, as the band picks up the opening notes of the jazz standard “Blueberry Hill,” and one of the band’s trumpet player begins tooting away, Rossi, 75, smiles over the crowd. “Me and my wife used to slow dance to this song … 1967 … I’ve been married for 59 years … Where did I go wrong?”
The crowd roars, and Rossi launches into the chorus, “The moon stood still … on Blueberry Hill.”
The Pittsburgh Banjo Club mainly sticks to what Rossi calls the “golden age of the banjo,” 1920 to 1930, playing a host of well-known ragtime, jazz and bluegrass ballads.
“We play the music of the 1890s and the 1950s. If you turn on Lawrence Welk, you’ll hear most of our songs,” said band member Joan Dickerson.
Dickerson, the band’s only black member, has been playing with the group for 15 years. Similar to many of her fellow band mates, she only began playing banjo in her 40s.
“Only a handful have taken lessons. Most just pick it up. An awful lot of them are ear players, they just learned some chords,” Dickerson said.
Dickerson of the few have taken banjo lessons. She began taking lessons on a classic style banjo, which has five strings, as opposed to the plectrum banjo, with four strings, she now plays.
“Since the teacher I was taking lessons from was a club member, I tended to go [to banjo night]. And there were smokers there, and I didn’t want to be among the smokers, so I joined the band.”
And this is one of the central themes of the band: everyone who’s interested in banjo, can join in. Rather than working with new members on an individual basis, Rossi has them sit in with the band during these Elks Lodge performances.
While the experienced players carry each song, new members can strum chords until they get the swing of things. Seasoned bad members, like Dickerson, then play the corresponding string melody by plucking individual notes. Underneath the rhythm of the 15 or 20 banjos strumming, it’s difficult to pick up the one beginner just trying to keep up.
As happened on this night though, sometimes the band as a whole can’t keep up with Rossi. The band leader bounces on his toes, a signal to pick up the pace.
When the song ends, Rossi makes a joke of it: “If I were dancing that slow, we would have never had any kids, I’ll tell you that.”