Chasin’ the Past Pt. 4- Lost Jazz Clubs of Rochester

As the Rochester International Jazz Festival draws to a close, so too does our blog series on the lost jazz clubs of Rochester. The final installment explores two venues from the city’s historic Corn Hill neighborhood…

THE PYTHODD (1953-1973)

The Pythodd–named after two fraternal organizations, Knights of Pythias and Odd Fellows–is probably Rochester’s best remembered jazz club.

The humble, three-story building stood at 159 Troup Street on the corner of Clarissa Street, which had long been the heart of Corn Hill’s African American community.

lost jazz_pythodd map_1935

The Pythodd at 159 Troup Street. From: City of Rochester Plat Map 1935.

Originally the dual headquarters of the Knights of Pythias and Odd Fellows, the private club began welcoming both local and touring jazz artists in 1953.

Gap and Chuck Mangione, who played at the club four nights a week in the early 1960s, developed their chops at the storied venue as did other up-and-comers like bassist Ron Carter, drummer Roy McCurdy, and tenor saxman Pee Wee Ellis.

As they honed their style in their own groups, aspiring Rochester musicians at the Pythodd were also regularly given the opportunity to play with some of the finest jazz artists in the country, including Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, and George Benson.

During his recent appearance at the Eastman Theatre, George Benson fondly recalled playing at the Pythodd and encountering a young, talented drummer named Steve Gadd.

lostjazz-pythodd ad-dc__Jul_26__1965_

From: Democrat & Chronicle, July 26, 1965.

The club’s reputation for phenomenal live music led Stevie Wonder to drop by after a performance at the War Memorial.

According to Stanley Thomas Jr., whose parents bought the club in 1968: “I was on the door at the time and he said, ‘I’m Stevie Wonder; do I have to pay?’ I told him if he was Stevie Wonder, he would have to show me and get up on the bandstand and play something…Well, Stevie went up there and played every instrument in the band. It seemed that within a half hour everybody in town knew about it, and they were lined up outside to get in.”

The patrons that lined up to see shows at the Pythodd represented a fairly diverse group. Thomas informed the Democrat & Chronicle in 1970: “We get ‘em all kinds in here. College level on up. There’s judges come in with their parties. City councilmen we see here once, twice a week, both political parties, doesn’t matter…We’ve got about a 60 per cent black and 40 per cent white place here.”

lostjazz_stanley thomas jr_DC_Mar_31__1989_ (1)

Stanley Thomas Jr., who ran the Pythodd from 1968-1973. His parents Stanley Sr. and Dolores Thomas owned the venue. From: Democrat & Chronicle, March 31, 1989.

An erstwhile patron explained in 1972, “At the Pythodd Room you can be seated with a migratory farmer on one side of you and a physician on the other, because we’re all seeking the same thing, good music.”

Will Moyle, a longtime radio DJ, recalled in 1983, “What I enjoyed so much about this place…it was the one place where people from all walks in our community could go.”

Sadly, the utopic music space did not last. Slated for demolition as part of the Third Ward Urban Renewal project, the Pythodd shut its doors on September 30, 1973. The hallowed hall was demolished along with 1,400 housing units and dozens of black-owned businesses in Corn Hill. But, unlike many other razed structures in the historic neighborhood, nothing ever went up in the Pythodd’s place.

A parking lot now marks the site where Rochesterians from all walks of life were once drawn together by a common passion.

 

lost jazz_pythodd _now

The parking lot beside the Flying Squirrel Community Space marks the former site of the Pythodd. From: Googlemaps, 2019.

SHEP’S PARADISE (1968-2002)

A couple doors down from the Pythodd stood another venerable African American institution, Shep’s Paradise.

Lost Jazz_Sheps__Feb_19__2017_

The march on Clarissa Street following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968. From: Democrat & Chronicle, February 17, 2017.

Located at 293 Clarissa Street (originally the site of Dan’s Tavern), Shep’s Paradise was opened in 1968 by Ruther “Shep” Shepard, a Florida-born graduate of the Rochester Business School.

For the first two decades of its existence, the club’s musical entertainment was provided by the soul, blues and jazz discs spinning in Shep’s jukebox.

Shepard became inspired to upgrade his entertainment offerings after a successful “Pythodd Reunion” jazz concert was held downtown in 1990. He informed the D&C, “After that happened, then we started thinking, ‘well let’s do some jazz regularly on Clarissa Street and try to start a new thing.’”

Beginning in 1991, under the direction of talent coordinator Carol Evans, the two-level venue began hosting performances four nights a week. The free shows steadily drew an audience of local jazz fans and Eastman students.

Democrat_and_Chronicle_Wed__Jul_8__1992_ad-SP

From: Democrat & Chronicle, July 8, 1992.

Though the club showcased well-established local artists such as drummer Eddie Israel, it was also known for taking chances on young talent.

As a regular patron informed the D&C in 2002, “They’ll book a group that’s been together for years and has a reputation, and they’ll book a group that’s fresh, brand new.”

lostjazz_sheps_DC_Feb_19__2017_

Ruther “Shep” Shepard ca. the 1980s. From: Democrat & Chronicle, February 17, 2017.

Shep’s jazz offerings were well received, but over the course of the 1990s the venue’s namesake owner began to struggle with back taxes. The City purchased the building from Shepard in 1998, in the hopes that he would one day buy it back, but he closed the club for good in 2002.

A series of establishments, including Clarissa’s and the Clarissa Room, have occupied the building since then.

lost jazz_sheps_now

The former home of Shep’s Paradise. From: Googlemaps 2019.

-Emily Morry

 

Published in: on June 28, 2019 at 5:44 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Hello . I came upon this link via an Instagram post about Rochester Jazz clubs including the Pythod . My father was part of that 40% whites who frequented that place . I do remember him talkng about Little Stevie Wonder and Fingertips Part 1 and 2. I was very young at the time but did have a 45 of that. My dad was involved with the in record business and the jazz scene in Rochester and went on to open Duffy’s Backstage on Monroe ave in the late 60’s? On Monroe
    ave. He was a huge fan of Miles and he did appear at Duffy’s and there is a live recording available too . My dad’s name was Dick Warner . He eventually moved to Hawaii in his late years and brought Dizzy Gillespie to Maui among others .


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