The Spirit of the Pythodd: Youth and Elders Work to Revive Memory of Rochester's Iconic Jazz Club
by DARIEN LAMEN
(WXIR-Rochester) On Thursday afternoon, a group of local elders got together online to reminisce about one of Rochester’s most iconic 20th century jazz clubs. Located in the historically Black Clarissa Street neighborhood, the Pythodd Club operated from the 1950s to the 1970s.
As Gloria Winston recalled, it might not have been much to look at. But that didn’t much matter once the band started playing. "The Pythodd looked like an old dilapidated house," says Winston, who used to work at the club. "But when those musicians hit that stage you'd think you were on the Left Bank of Paris or something with the music that went through there. It was historic. Phenomenal."
Elders recalled artists such as John Coltrane and George Benson stopping into the Pythodd while touring the so-called Chitlin Circuit. But the club's proximity to RIT (which was located in the neighborhood at the time) and the Eastman School of Music meant that it drew in local musicians as well.
Noal Cohen says he has the Pythodd to thank for one of his major breakthroughs as a jazz drummer. "I went to the Pythodd and hung out. I got up on the bandstand. And they called a tune called The Serpent's Tooth," Cohen explains.
"There's a place in the song where there's an obvious drum fill and I hit it right on, because I knew the record. And the piano player at the end of the tune turned around and asked me for my phone number. And after that my musical career in Rochester really went to another level."
During Thursday’s facilitated discussion, many elders recalled the Pythodd as a kind of oasis from the realities of racism in a highly segregated society. Many recalled it as a place where Black Rochesterians could truly make themselves at home. "I used to think it was kind of an even mix [of white and black patrons]," says Winston. "It's not that racism didn't exist, but it didn't exist in the Pythodd because most of the people went for the music."
Thursday’s group call was facilitated by youth members of Teen Empowerment as part of an ongoing effort to keep the history of the Clarissa Street neighborhood alive. Amarah Anderson says her generation doesn't really have a spot like the Pythodd the elders described. But she says Thursday’s group discussion has made her more determined to create one for herself and her peers.
"You don't really go to too many places and feel like you belong here," Anderson says. "I don't have a place where I can go and feel like this is where I want to be. And this is what youth should want to create."
Thursday’s guided walk down memory lane also marked the culmination of a public history project developed by University of Rochester students. That semester-long research project includes an online exhibit called “The Spirit of the Pythodd.”
You can take your own walk down memory lane by visiting that site at http://spiritofthepythodd.digitalscholar.rochester.edu.
DARIEN LAMEN is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org