Lawrenceville's Tender Bar + Kitchen welcomes Mardi Gras with jazz music

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Tonight you can listen to jazz music until you’re Dizzy. Or at least a little bit Thelonius.

It’s Fat Tuesday, and one of the places where you can celebrate it right is at Tender Bar + Kitchen in Lawrenceville, where the menu ranges from red beans and rice to The Boilermaker Jazz Band.

“It’s become very popular,” bandleader Paul Cosentino said of the Mardi Gras fun. “We started doing Fat Tuesday parties probably 20 years ago at the Penn Brewery and nobody was doing Mardi Gras parties at the time. We like to say we invented Mardi Gras in Pittsburgh. And now everybody has something going on. I guess it’s an excuse to do something on a Tuesday in the dead of winter — which I’m all for.”

Raised in New Jersey, Mr. Cosentino came to Pittsburgh in 1984 to study music and business administration at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s been here ever since, employing what he learned as leader of the band.

“It’s our 25th year,” he said of the jazz and swingtime group that varies in membership from two to six — and sometimes more — depending on the night and the venue.

“The full band is usually six, but we do any kind of combination. We can do smaller if it’s a smaller budget. We can add players and guest artists. These days you’ve got to be flexible.

“We’re based out of Pittsburgh. Most of the guys who play in the band live in the East End. But we do travel a lot and pick up other musicians when we go to other cities.”

Mr. Cosentino, 47, lives in Friendship, where running the band — and playing in it — keeps him busy.

“I had always led bands, even when I was in high school,” he said.

“Obviously, it wasn’t a full-time thing. I worked with other bands before deciding to start my own band up with the hope that someday it would be popular enough that I could make a living doing it. Through some talent and a lot of effort, it did turn out that way.”

And it was always swing and old-time jazz.

“That music has always been a fascination for me, ever since I was very young,” he said. “My grandfather was a piano player and always played that music and sort of got me started.

“If you look at the music from what I consider to be the Golden Age of Jazz — that is the ’20s through World War II — I think there was more great popular music written during that time than at any other time in the history of the planet. High-quality songs that were popular, and then jazz sort of allows you to interpret them your own way. Jazz gives you the freedom to do what you want with a song while still respecting it as a composition.”

Mr. Cosentino laughs when he is asked why he has this affinity for music that predates him.

“I always think it’s funny that people ask why I would play music that was written before my time,” he said. “They never ask a guy playing in the Pittsburgh Symphony, ‘Why do you play Mozart, which is from before your time?’ Well, if I was playing songs from Motown, most of that is before my time, too. I guess it comes down to, ‘What is old?’”

Tonight’s configuration of The Boilermaker Jazz Band will be a trio — Mr. Cosentino on clarinet, Max Leake on piano and Ernest McCarty on string bass.

“But that’s the great thing about the music that we play. It’s very adaptable,” Mr. Cosentino said. “You can play it with any number of different combinations and it still works. It’s not like a symphonic piece.

“You know, it was different back in those days. You had composers guys like Gershwin, Cole Porter, guys like that, who wrote songs, and then you had various musicians that played that song. The music was adaptable to different sizes and combos.”

A bigger band could bang out a bigger sound, but Tender is a tight spot, barely capable of accommodating the three-piece group.

Especially if people want to dance.

“They try to dance wherever they can find a spot,” Mr. Cosentino said. “There’s room by the band. You know how people are, they’ll find a place.”

And you shouldn’t fret about mixing with an older crowd.

“People always assume that,” Mr. Cosentino said. “But most of the people who heard this music the first time around are long gone. Believe it or not, when we play for swing dancing, I’m usually the oldest guy in the room. There’s this big revival of it and it’s been our bread and butter for the past 10 years or so. We play these college swing dancing events where everyone’s in their 20s. We used to play a lot of jazz festivals, and those tend to draw an older crowd. But if you’re going to get out there and Lindy Hop, you’ve got to be pretty athletic.

“That’s the amazing thing about music and dance. It’s a symbiotic relationship where we’re both creating our art simultaneously, feeding off of each other — and it is wonderful.

“A lot of these dances are improvisational, too. When you see people that you know are great dancers and then the band goes off on some kind of a riff and the dancers pick right up on it. It’s pretty special, and it’s a beautiful feeling that you can’t really get anywhere else.”

The jazz won’t be the only thing that’s hot. There will be crawfish bisque, gumbo and grits, alligator burgers, red snapper and succotash hush puppies.

And the swing won’t be the only thing that’s cool. There’s going to be sazeracs, hurricanes, chartreuse shots and lots more to drink.

Oh, and beads. Lots and lots of beads.

The Boilermaker Jazz Band takes the stage at 8 p.m. at Tender Bar + Kitchen, 4300 Butler St. Admission is $5, half of which goes to the Lawrenceville Corp., a nonprofit neighborhood group.

Dan Majors:

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