Marva Jo's brings sound of jazz to McKeesport

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It's a coffee shop. It's a BYOB establishment. It's a community center. It's a jazz spot.

And if Aubrey Bruce has his way, it will help to revitalize McKeesport.

After a year and a half of planning and nearly three months of renovation, Mr. Bruce has opened Marva Jo's Bistro with partners Marva Josie -- an internationally known jazz singer for whom the establishment is named -- and Gerard Magnelli. Although business has been slow so far, Mr. Bruce said, the owners maintain plans and hopes for the site, which used to be Immel's Department Store on Fifth Avenue.

Mr. Bruce, a sports columnist for the New Pittsburgh Courier, who has also been involved in concert promotion and record production, noted that getting the space up and running was quite an investment -- more than $100,000 for a new electrical system and plumbing, for starters. Mr. Bruce's work in concerts and record production explains his connection to Ms. Josie, who owned the property.

Owners intended to restore it to its original state, which includes the carpet and wood paneling.

"It took Stanley Steemer five times to do the carpet," although, fortunately, it hadn't suffered any mold damage, Mr. Bruce said. That took six weeks, with "four more weeks to rehab the wood," he said.

Mr. Campbell hired pianist Donna Davis, bassist Miles Jackson and drummer Jevon Rushton to round out the house band, which right now performs Fridays and Saturdays.

In addition to weekend nights, the bistro already serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Upcoming plans include a "School Daze" jam session on Wednesdays for student musicians, a movie night on Thursdays and a weekly "Gospel After High Noon" late Sunday afternoons.

Mr. Bruce said the club is targeting an upscale crowd, age 35 and older; sneakers are not permitted, but jeans are. The standard cover charge is $10, but "we give a dollar off for business casual and up. We want to draw from [places such as] Homestead, Pittsburgh and North Versailles because economically they're in better shape" than McKeesport, he said.

For now, the establishment is offering other discounts as well. Friday is Port Authority Night, with all bus drivers eligible for free coffee and sodas. Saturday, the same goes with anyone who works in Allegheny County. The bistro doesn't have a liquor license, so it's BYOB.

The interior, other than the wood, is primarily painted pea green, with about 30 burlap coffee sacks hanging from the rafters. It sports about a dozen tables that had previously been large electric wire spools.

The club is not all Mr. Bruce and partners have planned for the area. He's building a recording studio in the office next door at a cost of $250,000, which he said may be up and running by February.

Mr. Campbell has a record deal with Mr. Bruce's label, Elegance, and Mr. Bruce is also talking to fellow local saxman Kenny Blake.

"It's about the music," Mr. Bruce said, "and when it's not about the music, I don't want to be in the business."

Rick Nowlin: or 412-263-3871.

Correction (Posted Dec. 27, 2013) An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Tony Campbell's involvement.

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