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Con Alma: Keeping Pittsburgh Jazz Thriving in Trying Times

Photo credit: Mackenzie Horne

C. Andrew Hovan By

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The scene still feels vibrant despite the pandemic and we’re grateful we’ve been able to keep everyone working as a much as we have throughout this whole thing.
—John Shannon
Not mentioned nearly enough as a locale that nurtured some of jazz music's most memorable artists, Pittsburgh can boast a jazz history that is unparalleled, especially for a city of its size. Just a partial list of icons that hailed from the area would include Ahmad Jamal, Art Blakey, Erroll Garner, George Benson, and Stanley Turrentine. Over the past several decades, the jazz scene there has continued to thrive under the auspices of such presenters as Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and The Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival.

Two years ago, a stylish newcomer entered the market with an emphasis on honoring the city's jazz legacy, while also providing a setting for current artists to share their music. Located in a converted vintage home on Ellsworth Avenue, Con Alma (translation: With Soul) is a 1900 square foot space smack dab in the middle of the city's trendy Shadyside neighborhood. Boasting an intimate setting, including a beautiful outdoor patio and a stereo utilized for spinning vinyl between sets, the mix of live jazz, nouvelle cuisine, and signature cocktails proved to be a winning combination.

The brainchild of guitarist and music curator John Shannon, chef Josh Ross, and general manager/wine curator Aimee Marshall, Con Alma has thrived both as a happening spot for youngsters getting hip to the jazz scene, as well as veteran listeners who welcomed the opportunity to hear local icons such as drummer Roger Humphries and up-and comers such as Antonio Croes and George Heid III.

At the peak of their early success, Covid-19 dealt its crippling hand, closing down businesses right and left and Con Alma was no exception in having to find creative new ways to survive in spite of the pandemic. "The outside music series last summer started when I thought it would be cool to have a duo playing outside while people were picking up takeout from the restaurant," explained Shannon in a recent phone interview. "Then people started bringing chairs to sit outside across the street to enjoy the music and it all grew from there into a really special summer actually. With the weather holding up, we were able to keep things going into November."

Joining in the trend for streaming live music, Con Alma jumped on board during the spring of 2020 and as the summer approached, they continued to brainstorm additional new strategies for staying afloat. "We have been going with the flow, changing our approach constantly," Shannon enthused. "We took a risk and bought our food truck in the beginning of the summer as well, which we parked in another location near downtown Pittsburgh with a stage. Thus, in combination with our main location, we were able to have nine paying gigs a week for jazz musicians, which we are very proud of. We are now at 50% capacity and tables at 6 feet apart. We have the patio open, which also helps now that the weather is getting warmer. It has been going well and people are coming back, plus new people are coming all the time."

Fast forward a year past the initial lockdowns, Shannon, Ross, and Marshall fell into an opportunity that they couldn't resist. "We came across our new space in downtown Pittsburgh right in the cultural district. It will be on Penn Avenue, right across from Heinz Hall, and we are going to call it Con Alma Downtown." Indeed, the space is smack dab in the middle of a thriving area and at 3000 square feet it will allow for more patrons, while still maintaining the kind of intimate contact with the music that Shannon prefers.

"Downtown we are looking at a 110 seat capacity where from every seat you can see the stage, which will be nicely lit and be off the ground a little more than our original location. We are excited to try some different things being downtown, such as late night jam sessions and more avant-garde jazz. The vinyl area will be by the bar, which will make it a nice area to hang. We will also have a beautiful upright piano and be able to fit a full quintet easily on the stage, which we are really excited about." Shannon then adds, "The scene still feels vibrant despite the pandemic and we're grateful we've been able to keep everyone working as a much as we have throughout this whole thing. We believe in this music."

Shannon continues to speak with enthusiasm about how the vision for supporting live jazz music in Pittsburgh continues to blossom. "This pandemic year has been tough, but now exciting in relation to opening up another place during these times, as much of a risk as it is. We really couldn't be more excited to be located in Pittsburgh's Cultural District. This means that people coming in from outside of Pittsburgh for theater and sports events will also be able to experience this city's deep jazz culture and legacy."

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