Pittsburgh has a long jazz history — and now, a new venue for jazz musicians and fans to call home.
Con Alma opened last weekend on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside. It will operate on Monday evenings and on Wednesday through Saturday evenings, and on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Amid live performances and a daily vinyl happy hour, visitors can sample specialty cocktails and a Latin-inspired menu.
Offerings include quick eats such as ceviche, quesadillas, guacamole and tacos. Entrees range from Ropa Vieja (braised and shredded short rib served with rice and black beans) and Arroz Con Pollo (Cuban-style chicken and rice with pigeon peas, piquillo peppers and olives).
During Sunday brunch, the menu includes specialty nachos and arepas along with specialty drinks that add a modern flair to traditional cocktails. Try a michelada, a fresh carrot juice sangrita or a caipirinha made with black pepper and cardamom.
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Pittsburgh was a hub for jazz musicians. Fans packed clubs throughout the city to hear standards such as Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma.”
“Some of the best players in the world are still here. There’s just not currently a home for them, which is another motivation to build this place,” says John Shannon, Con Alma’s co-owner and music curator. “Our intention is to turn people on to the deep lineage that Pittsburgh has with jazz music in general.”
Con Alma, which means “with soul,” has been a labor of love for Shannon and business partners Chef Josh Ross and Beverage Director Aimee Marshall.
In January, the team began renovating the 140-year-old building, developing a 1,900-square-foot space with the vibe of an old speakeasy. The walls and ceiling are dark, but the main room is warmed by gold accents and light fixtures. A large front window showcases the stage and mahogany bar. There are bistro tables and lounge-style booths throughout the building, a green room downstairs and a covered patio in the back that can accommodate 40 people.
The space is deliberately low-tech: There are no televisions and the sound system is designed specifically for vinyl records, which will spin when there is no live entertainment.
Shannon, a guitarist and composer, will lead the house band, the Nosmo King Trio — named in honor of his grandfather, Pittsburgh radio personality Paul Shannon — on weeknights, while local acts will take the spotlight on the weekends.
After living and performing in New York City for 12 years, Shannon returned to Pittsburgh on a mission to resurrect the jazz scene here. He recruited Ross, the son of his former music teacher, who has worked in local kitchens including Pirata, Bravo Franco and Pan Asian Kitchen.
You can’t have a speakeasy without drinks, so Marshall — who has been bartending and following the city’s jazz scene for more than 30 years — created a lineup of citrus-based, fruit-forward cocktails that are lighter versions of Latin and Prohibition classics.
“If the food is the heart, the music the soul,” Marshall says, then “the spirit of the space will be the cocktails.”