Pittsburghers should support city's blessings

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It was a Sunday night in December, and we were in the Cabaret at Theatre Square, listening to -- pardon my rapture -- a bubbling stream of liquid gold flow forth from Sean Jones' trumpet.

It was the kind of mouth-watering, eye-opening jazz that I can get lost in, but not so lost that I didn't glance around the room a couple of times and wonder: Where the heck is everyone?

That evening's musical marvels, enjoyed by only two or three dozen people, spring to mind whenever I read of the latest effort to launch yet another restaurant or entertainment enterprise Downtown. At those moments, memories of that night's nearly unequaled delight carry an undercurrent of dread.

Less than two weeks before the Cabaret concert, I'd heard Sean Jones play in New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. As lead trumpeter, he contributed burnished solos to a joint performance of "The Nutcracker Suite," with the New York Philharmonic playing Tchaikovsky's original dances and the jazz orchestra answering with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's free-wheeling arrangements.

Mr. Jones, an assistant professor at Duquesne University, is also a regular on Pittsburgh's jazz scene. Here he was on a Sunday night, playing with headliner Bobby Floyd from Columbus, Ohio.

Mr. Floyd's piano was a special revelation for me. Listening to him play stride, boogie-woogie, gospel and blues was like taking a joyful romp through the history of jazz. I felt as awestruck as I did the first time I heard a recording by Pittsburgh jazz legend Erroll Garner.

Since two local stars, percussionist Roger Humphries and bassist Dwayne Dolphin, were playing with Mr. Floyd for the first time, I asked Sean if he'd ever played with this great pianist before. His answer was "yes, two years ago at a gig in Switzerland."

This is the point where I have to confess that we Pittsburghers-by-adoption talk about you natives behind your backs. Our common desire is to shake you by the shoulders and yell, "Don't you know what you've got here?"

For starters -- and finishers and everything in between, by my lights -- you can hear world-class music in Pittsburgh venues almost any night of the week. You don't have to go to Europe's jazz boites or concert halls to do so.

Excellent music being an integral part of the well-lived life, where was everybody else that Sunday night in December?

And why would any entrepreneur or civic leader think that people who won't leave the house for a good dinner and unparalleled music will miraculously turn out for dinner and Muzak?

That was my reaction to the announcement 10 days ago that two national chain restaurants will open next year in Piatt Place, hopefully bringing new life to the old Lazarus store.

They can build it, but I won't come. Contrary to my "crunchy conservative" preference for all things local and independent, however, it may be that only national chains, with their deep corporate pockets, can survive this city's nighttime wasteland until a critical mass of Downtown residents is achieved.

Dave Papale planned the Bobby Floyd concert at Theatre Square as an extension of the flourishing "Jazz at Gullifty's" series he produces at the Squirrel Hill eatery.

"That first night was kind of experimental," Mr. Papale said. His event was up against the symphony's "Holiday Pops," "A Musical Christmas Carol" at the Byham and "The Nutcracker" at the Benedum, so "I don't believe it was a true test of the market."

The difference between Squirrel Hill's late-night vibe and Downtown's post-5 p.m. doldrums hasn't escaped him. While Gullifty's clientele sustains four nights of jazz per week, he hopes to offer only one night a month Downtown.

Having managed a successful New York blues club for a decade before returning to his native Pittsburgh in 2005, Mr. Papale doesn't foresee Downtown sustaining a vibrant night life "any sooner than three to five years."

I'm sure that he and many Downtown businesspeople would love to see that caution proven wrong. But two Thursdays ago my husband and I had dinner in a large restaurant one block from Theatre Square. We had the place nearly to ourselves.

It shouldn't be that way, and since I have no economic stake in the matter, I can preach this gospel. Things that are local and special and live are generally better than things that are generic and bland and canned.

You can eat well and hear some of the world's greatest musicians here any night of the week.

Judging from the often scanty crowds, though, too many Pittsburghers don't know how blessed this city is. If you find out, you just might want to hang onto it.

Ruth Ann Dailey can be reached at rdailey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1733.


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