The last weekend of September marked the return of live jazz Downtown, with the opening of a tasty little club named Little E's, located above Mahoney's Restaurant and Lounge, at 949 Liberty Ave., in the Cultural District.
Live jazz on a regular basis, the musical staple at Little E's, has been missing not only Downtown but in the city at large ever since the closing of the James Street Tavern, on the North Side, and Dowe's on 9th, Downtown. Trombonist Al Dowe, who owned Dowe's on 9th, and longtime vocalist Etta Cox were among the packed house at Little E's during the opening weekend.
Cox sat in for a couple of tunes with the Harold Betters Quartet that Saturday night, an evening of traditional jazz fare enhanced by the 80-year-old Betters' enthusiastic trombone and vocal stylings. The Betters gig followed the previous Thursday's rush-hour club-opening date by another old-time local jazz hand, saxman Don Aliquo, and Friday night's early-evening date by the Tony Campbell Trio.
Club owner George Kazas, 41, named the new venture after his young son, Elias; a sketched caricature of "Little E" hangs on the wall above the stairs. As a Greek Orthodox priest wandered the room in a blessing ceremony early Saturday evening, Kazas explained that he has long dreamed of opening a jazz club Downtown: He has always loved the music and says he wants to bring back the old-style Pittsburgh jazz room that local jazz artists and a regular stream of national players considered home stages in years past, such as the Crawford Grill. Not lost in his thinking is the growing residential population of Downtown -- students moving into dorms as well as upper-income folks moving into upscale condos and apartments.
Pittsburgh does have a few clubs that offer jazz a couple of nights a week, such as Gullifty's, in Squirrel Hill; CJ's, in the Strip District; the Back Stage Bar, Downtown; and Martini's, in Jefferson Hills. But the city has had no venue devoted exclusively to the music form.
Kazas has created an intimate loft that is ideal for listening, and which can accommodate about 35 customers at small café-style tables and bench seating along the brick walls, which have been painted rusty red. The tiny stage is an acoustically sound space at the end of the narrow, hardwood-floored seating area. Every spot was claimed by 9:30 p.m. on the first Saturday, with another 15 or so folks crowding around the bar taking in drinks, munchies and jazz as it is meant to be: live, boisterous and close-up.
Next to the stage, a small poster of Che Guevara and an Evelio Cigar poster oversee an enclosed cigar shelf -- yet to be stocked, as Kazas awaits installation of a filtering system. The front of the room has a bar and a couch, sort of an entry parlor at the top of the long stairway from the restaurant downstairs, owned by Kazas' brother, Elias.
"Eventually," Kazas said, "we'll do packages -- dinner and a show." His initial plans call for booking live local jazz acts Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and for jam sessions earlier in the week; he says he's on the lookout for a musician to host the jams. "We'll just have to see how it goes."
Upcoming Shows at Little E's: Patrick Arena (5-8 p.m. Thu., Oct. 9); Robbie Klien (6-9 p.m. Fri., Oct. 10); Donna Bailey CD Release (8-11 p.m. Sat., Oct. 11). 949 Liberty Ave., 2nd Floor. 412-392-2217 or www.littleesjazz.com