New generation of music, but not the same old jazz
One recent Friday night, bassist Tony DePaolis led his band at Little E's, Downtown, in a show that featured the voice of Carolyn Perteete on several songs.
A few weeks later, Perteete led a gig at the same club, with the same band behind her. But it was her show and so the quartet was in a much subdued role.
The two shows are a display of the new generation of Pittsburgh jazz. It is made up of a group younger musicians who work together, change shapes together, hang out together and create new music together.
Pianist Mike Murray, 33, came here from Cleveland about six years ago and, in what he calls a stretch of "really bad luck," saw a group of mediocre bands playing dated, predictable jazz. Then he ran into trumpeter Sean Jones, and that led to meeting drummer James Johnson III, and "I could see something was happening."
He says he began playing in differently shaped bands with many of the same people because all the musicians were trying to present different forms of jazz, but trying to do it in ways that always were serious.
DePaolis, Perteete and saxophonist Jacob Yoffee, for example, once were at the heart of a contemporary jazz band called Yin Yang. Now they all are more centered on acoustic work, but will easily plug in when needed.
It is a group of musicians who can play the classics of jazz, but is more interested in creating newer music.
Perteete, 29, for instance, does not consider herself a jazz singer and the songs she writes often come from the world of the singer-songwriter. Yet, when trumpeter Sean Jones needs a voice for his big band, he turns to her.
"Jazz is a slippery term," says guitarist Colter Harper, 31, who says many older fans of the genre pull away from music they don't recognize as jazz even though it is focused on all the elements essential to the genre.
"We help each other because we need each other," says drummer Johnson III, 32, who is a steady and creative force here, but also has toured with piano giant Ahmad Jamal. Yoffee, 30, is a saxophonist who alone creates many of the settings for these musicians. His group Metaphor is an electric band that is mindful of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew"-era group in its look at fusion. But those musicians also can put down their electric instruments and become the Jacob Yoffee Quartet. He also created the Murray Avenue Jazz Initiative, a group that provides a new look at what a big band can do.
Yoffee now is living in New York City, but still spends much time playing here.
Harper, who admits he didn't know too much about jazz when he came here in 1994, says the work of people like Yoffee and Jones help keep the music alive in Pittsburgh. There is a "culture of relaxedness" here that would accept any form of jazz as long as it appeared to be offered honestly. But Yoffee brings back many ideas from his new home in New York City, and Jones "takes time to impart a lot of energy on the local scene."
There would be a chance of "stagnation" otherwise, he says.
Jones, 31, teaches at Duquesne University, has five nationally distributed albums to his name, tours nationally and internationally, and plays lead trumpet in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York City.
Yet, he will show up at local jam sessions and sit in with local performers regularly.
Jones says he believes the cooperation and musical sharing that is happening "speaks to the times"; a period, he says, where jazz is not necessarily profitable. That makes dedicated musicians willing to work with each other to advance the job.
It also creates rounded musicians who can play many forms simply because they are asked to
"Pittsburgh musicians are prepared to work," Jones says. He agrees with players such as Murray and Yoffee, who point out musicians can carve out a career in a specific style in places such as New York City. That makes them marvelous specialists, while Pittsburgh musicians have to work in a variety of settings.
It can be frustrating, Johnson and others admit, but bassist Paul Thompson says that "makes you hungry" for the music most important to you. At 36, he feels sometimes like he is no longer "one of the kids" in music, but crosses paths often with these musicians. He says the collusion is simply one of those events that happen when like minds happen to stumble together.
"It's just that time," he says.
"We just found each other as we were coming up," he says. "We have been with each other in good times and we have been around in not-so-good times." Sometimes the work has its bad scenes, Perteete points out. She says there is an "A list" whose members work together and will participate in projects because they know it will help them That works down to the "C list," whose members never show up in developing projects.
Similarly, she adds, there are too few younger musicians to push the 30-somethings away from being settled on their music. She says that needs to happen the same way this current group has moved away from the jazz of the '50s, '60s and '70s that can be stylistically dominant.
One of the bigger problems is the lack of places to present this talent, says pianist Alton Merrell, 34. He moved here 4 1⁄2 years ago from Warren, Ohio, to take a job as a church music director and discovered a varied jazz scene.
But besides practicing their art, musicians are going to have to find a way of convincing club owners and concert presenters to feature their music, "If a person wants to survive, he has to be energetic and make that happen," Merrell says,