Few cities in the world have been more important for the development of jazz than Pittsburgh. From the 1920s through the 1960s, Art Blakey, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner, Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn, George Benson, and many more graced stages during the Hill District’s heyday, when the neighborhood rivaled Harlem for sheer creative output.
There’s still great jazz being made in Pittsburgh today. But it’s not that easy to find. And the pandemic, of course, has pushed musicians and clubs further from view.
Now, Con Alma in Shadyside, which opened in 2019, is opening a big new location Downtown this summer in the Cultural District — even with the problems the pandemic has brought.
“I know; it’s scary,” says Aimee Marshall, Con Alma’s general manager. “It’s crazy. We knew, I think, quite a while ago that we would want to expand. There just aren’t any jazz venues left in Pittsburgh … the jazz musicians we have here are world-class. I mean, they’re playing in hotels, but there’s not anywhere dedicated to jazz.
“And we were when we opened; it was such a success. I didn’t expect it to take off that quickly.”
Con Alma means “with soul.” Like the Dizzy Gillespie tune of the same name, Con Alma bops along to its own Latin-inflected beat. In Shadyside, that has meant an intimate venue with excellent pan-Latin cuisine and cocktails, creative use of a tiny indoor/outdoor space and a few Covid-related alterations.
“Obviously we’ve pivoted. We got a food truck; we brought our music outside,” says Marshall. “People got carryout drinks and food and stuff across the street, instead of having that intimate experience that we’re known for.”
At 613 Penn Ave. Downtown, they’ll have 3,000 square feet in the former Peter Allen’s Italian restaurant (and Bravo Franco before that) right across the street from Heinz Hall in the Roosevelt Building. Con Alma chef Josh Ross is familiar with the space; he worked at Bravo Franco for more than 10 years.
“Once things get back to normal, and when people go to a show or come Downtown, it would be nice to have a place to go to after the show, and hear some more live music and get something to eat,” says Marshall. “We just don’t have that at all in Pittsburgh. For as rich as we are in having the symphony, the ballet, the Broadway series, all these theaters — where do you go afterward?”
The space will include a 12-seat bar, a lounge with couches and loveseats and a dining room that will seat approximately 60 people. There will be a large record collection and turntables, of course.
Marshall’s partner, John Shannon, is the music curator and plays in the house band that will change with a rotating cast of Pittsburgh jazz players, including some from out of town with a connection to the city.
The food is pan-Latin, with a balance between Latin American classics such as Lechon Asado (roasted Cuban mojo pork) and ceviche. Other menu items will rely on the creativity of Ross, including adding a few Asian touches, such as Korean Fried Chicken & Waffles. There will be vegan and vegetarian options. The menu will be similar to the Shadyside Con Alma but larger, notes Marshall.
Cocktails will range from Latin American classics such as the Old Cuban with spiced rum, agave, lime and angostura bitters to jazz-themed originals such as Lush Life (a Billy Strayhorn song), featuring cachaça, a sweet clear liquor distilled from fermented sugarcane juice.
The Con Alma team is starting demolition now and hopes to open this summer.