Flip through those images, and it’s almost as if you can hear the soulful melodies reaching you 35 years in the future.
We at The Digs lifted the lid off a box of color negatives in the photo library last week. It’s the first time we’ve really taken a look at decades gone by through color negs, and we wish we had started browsing these much earlier. Amid dozens of envelopes of fall shots around southwest Pennsylvania from the 1970s (expect to see some of that timeless color posted here later this year), there was one of greater interest: “Jazz in Pittsburgh, 10-19-80.”
Pittsburgh’s contribution to American jazz history is not as well documented as one might hope. The city’s two daily newspapers, the Press and the Post-Gazette, did not begin to pay attention to African-American culture in any serious way until the second half of the 20th century.
Cultural spots inside neighborhoods like the Hill District and Homewood were not major destinations for photographers and reporters (except for those who worked at The Pittsburgh Courier). That deficit in the PG’s archive made this single envelope more prized.
It provided a rare look into a scene that — at least in this particular location — no longer exists.
Because there was no other writing on the envelope nor negative sleeves, we must try to imagine what and who these photos showed. (And, please, if you recognize anyone in the frames or know someone who might, let us know in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The scene: Eileen’s Bar and Grill, 708 N. Dallas Ave. in Homewood. That much we found from old event listings.
The date: October 19, 1980. But that was a Sunday; that listing said Friday and Saturday nights in the Zebra Room.
And so maybe it was a special occasion — one worthy enough for a photographer to go check it out? Either way, take a moment to look at those photos.
Really look at them. The faces. The joy. The clothes. The styles.The bowling trophy. The instruments. The lights. That just-about-brand-new Pittsburgh Pirates 1979 World Series champions pennant hanging on the wall. We wonder where that ended up?
Then close your eyes. Hear the smooth and lively jazz notes filling the air. And the laughter. It’s hard to imagine anyone failing to have themselves a good time that night.
Open your eyes, and here’s what you see:
It’s all gone. On the side of the building, there’s a sign for a market that’s no longer there.
County records show it was most recently sold in 2012 to a business named EILLAV MEHCEB NAE, LLC.
The price? $1.
Updated, Sept. 11, 2015: In the hours after we first posted these images, memories about Eileen’s and those who played there came flooding in.
You can read a few of them in the comments at the bottom. But here’s more about what we learned on this spot.
When a headliner jazz act wrapped its Downtown show on a Friday or Saturday night in the 1980s, those in the Pittsburgh jazz scene knew where to go to hear the after-hours set.
The classiest spot in Homewood was the Zebra Room, and it was found downstairs at Eileen’s Bar and Grill. Everyone from Stanley Turrentine to Billy Eckstein played against the backdrop of a wall covered in zebra pattern.
“My Uncle Jim used to sing there, too,” said Lisa Franklin Robinson, niece of deceased owner Eileen Hunter. “He thought he sounded like Billy Eckstine, but he didn’t really.”
Jim Hunter was Eileen’s husband, and together they owned the club at 708 N. Dallas Ave. from the 1970s until 1990 or so. No one could quite pinpoint the year Eileen’s closed, but it fell with the rest of the Homewood jazz scene in the early 1990s.
But there is now a plan for the vacant structure.
A Homewood resident, Kirk Webster, has partnered with the structure’s owner, Vallie Dean, to bring back a business. Mrs. Dean’s father owned property around Pittsburgh and passed them on to his daughter when he died (hence the $1 2012 sale price).
“We want to try to bring it back up to par, to salvage the property,” she said. “Perhaps use it as a dollar store. A dollar store might fit good in that area.”
And a block away, at 6840 Kelly St., Mr. Webster and Mrs. Dean have an idea to again give Homewood its music hot spot: the Vieux Carré Jazz and Blues Venue. When told of those plans, Dr. Jacqueline Young was thrilled. She spent many nights at Eileen’s, along with jazz players like Roger Humphries, Carl Arter, Mike Taylor, Ron Tucker and Tiny Irwin, some of whom are seen in the photos we found and posted at www.post-gazette.com/thedigs.
“It was the quintessential jazz club, a very warm atmosphere,” Dr. Young said. “We don’t really have that many places to go around town anymore to hear jazz.”