Tonight, you're on the North Side. You're back in James Street, walking down the tight stairwell that leads to the storied speakeasy. You hear the sound of music -- it's jazz, no doubt about it -- that sounds so familiar.
It's the Jazz Jam at James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy and, frankly, you never know what you're going to hear.
"Every experience is different," said pianist Howie Alexander, who will be your host tonight. "Who knows who's going to come out. I'm a jazz musician and we improvise. That's what we do.
"If you're a really good cook, you don't need a million ingredients in your refrigerator. You can put something together with whatever you have. That's the challenge."
The Jazz Jam has been a fixture at James Street every other Tuesday since the restaurant reopened in its old configuration about a year and a half ago. Co-owner Adam Johnston, who books the entertainment, is particularly proud of the mixes they've been able to concoct with rotating "hosts."
"I hear the musicians saying how there's not enough gigs in town," Mr. Johnston said. "They like jams, but a lot of the time so-and-so only hires his friends. So there's only so much work.
"So we're having a random player as host each time. He'll ask other players and it brings together these really random combinations, makes it different every time. They seem to enjoy it. It gives everybody a little bit of work.
"We've had jams where the room was nothing but players. There were as many as 40 players and six regular guests. Other times we'll have about 12. And you wouldn't believe the coolness of some combinations that you just don't see come together ever. It's been a lot of fun."
James Street has been known for jazz -- as well as fine food and drink -- for decades, with brief interruptions that included operating under other names and being closed for months at a time. In December 2011, it came back as it used to be.
"It's the exact same vibe; everything's set up the same," said bar manager Kevin Saftner. "We have the wall when you walk downstairs into the speakeasy, all the musicians are signing it again. It looks just like it always did."
The Jazz Jams are familiar treats to the regulars.
"It'll be a bunch of jazz musicians bringing in their instruments," Mr. Saftner said. "Everybody gets up on stage. You never know who is going to be there. But whoever shows up will bring in some of his friends. And they just get together and jam for the night."
Mr. Alexander will be joined tonight by a drummer, a bass player and a saxophonist as his rhythm section. The direction of the music will depend on who else comes out.
"I like to play a lot of different styles of music. It's live and you could hear anything. That's pretty much the tradition of the music of jazz."
And you don't have to be just another listener. You can join in -- if you got the game.
"We don't really have a list," Mr. Saftner said. "It's pretty much just a friendly thing. Most of the musicians in the city know each other. But if you're a new musician to the city, it's a great place to come to meet the right people. If you walk in with an instrument, they're gonna see you and come talk to you.
"Obviously, you have to be pretty highly skilled to play with these guys. I mean, you'll see Roger Humphries down there. Dwayne Dolphin. Mark Strickland will be down there playing guitar. If you can hang with them, that's pretty much all that's required.
"We get a lot of younger people come in that Mark Strickland might be teaching. Or CAPA students or Duquesne jazz students will say, 'All right, I heard about this.' They'll stop in and give it a shot, see what they can do. One of my buddies, he was the lead chair in the jazz club at Pitt, and he sat down with them. He said he was just pretty much blown away."
"I liken it to a pickup basketball game," said Mr. Alexander. "You might practice at home forever. But then you have to take your game out and join in the pickup game at the court. It's friendly, but they also can throw some elbows, too."
You have to earn your spot in the speakeasy. Mr. Alexander did, years ago.
"I've been going to James Street ever since I was a teenager growing up in Blackridge about 22 years ago," he said. "I would go there and sit in. One of my first gigs ever was at James Street, with Tubby Daniels.
"A lot of us are really, really glad that it's open and kickin.'"
"The James Street spot has a sentimental value to all the players," Mr. Johnston said. "That's definitely something we have going for us as an advantage."
The advantage works in your favor starting at 7 p.m. at 422 Foreland St. on the North Side. There's no cover, but you'll be sitting at a table in a restaurant -- so you might want to order something from James Street's full bar and menu.
If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and well see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1456. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/