On the eve of Jazz Fest, calls to honor Rochester’s own rich jazz legacy

Vallot's Tavern (owned by George Fontenette's grandparents, Alpheus and Eunice Vallot)

When George Fontenette was coming of age in the neighborhood known then as the 3rd Ward, music carried down Clarissa Street toward Ford Street.

Clarissa Street, which then was the central commercial district of the once predominantly Black neighborhood, was home to several hot spots like Scotty’s Pool Hall, Smitty’s Birdland, LaRue’s Restaurant, Vallot’s Tavern, The Elk’s Club, and Shep’s Paradise. 

It was Rochester’s Black Broadway, and the music Fontenette remembers came from its cultural capital, the Pythodd Club.

“The kids our age couldn’t wait to go out and stand in front of the Pythodd,” Fontenette said in a recorded 2020 conversation with a group of young people from Teen Empowerment, a community organization with a mission to empower youth.

Behind the bar at the Pythodd.

The Pythodd was Rochester’s legendary jazz club that attracted big-name  musicians and even bigger personalities. In the 1950s, the Knights of Pythias and Odd Fellows clubs met in a large three-story house with peeling paint at the corner of Clarissa and Troup streets, thus the mythical-sounding name. 

“It was the cultural center of Black Rochester,” said Derrick Lucas, music director at the jazz radio station 90.1. “Stevie Wonder, after he would do a show at the War Memorial, he still wanted to play, so he would go to the Pythodd and jam.”

On the eve of the Rochester International Jazz Festival‘s return to downtown for the first time in two years, memories of the Pythodd have resurfaced. That nostalgia also is happening, in part, because Teen Empowerment and its supporters are showing a new exhibit inside RIT’s City Art Space at Sibley Square, across the street from Parcel 5, where Jazz Fest headliners will perform.

Clarissa Street was known for its jazz clubs and for being one of the first African American neighborhoods in Rochester. Some of the famous clubs and locations are now gone or moved. This space used to The Pythodd.

This year’s festival will feature 1,750 artists and 325 shows at 20 venues. The massive event has historically been the prism by which many people experience the city, with an economic impact delivered to the region exceeding $180 million, according to the Jazz Festival’s website. Those statistics show an enormous appetite for Jazz music in Rochester, a hunger many Black elders believe was created during the Pythodd’s pinnacle.  

The Jazz Festival is happening in a city that saw people take to the streets during the summer of 2020 racial reckoning sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. And Rochester is a city still grappling with the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who died in a hospital days after Rochester police officers arrested him while he was in the throes of a mental health crisis.

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Lucas said he believes that a collaboration on a tribute to the Pythodd with the Jazz Festival is necessary. Any major festival should have representation of the community because “Black people started this music,” he said.

The Pythodd Room, circa 1959.

“That was the meeting place for the culture,” Lucas said. “It survived the riots but couldn’t survive urban renewal. It would be a great service to honor that club and what it meant to the city.”

Even though there’s an empty parking lot where the Pythodd used to stand on Clarissa Street, those who are old enough to remember its influence can recall the hangout’s details, placing chairs and other furnishings in the right spots in their minds.

People who describe the Pythodd often say it was more than a building. In the 1970 edition of Upstate Magazine, reporter Bill O’Brien said that lots of venues had music, but the Pythodd offered “its own kind of feeling.”

“You move in the Pythodd room. If you aren’t moving, somebody should carry you out. You must be dead.”

A spread in the Sept. 6, 1970, Upstate magazine described “The Pythodd Feeling.”

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Keeping the Pythodd’s memory alive 

Imagine sitting next to your best friends and having a drink while listening to John Coltrane on the saxophone. Suddenly, you smell soul food cooking in the kitchen, and to your surprise, Coltrane can’t help but stop his set to get a bite to eat. The jazz legend enjoys the food and finishes his session in a moment of mastery.

The Pythodd matchbook.

Memories remain fresh in the minds of residents like Gloria Winston, who worked at the club until its demise in the early ’70s.

The first time she remembers stepping into the Pythodd was her wedding night in 1963.

“The Pythodd looked like an old, dilapidated house,” Winston shared with the teens. “But when the lights came on and the music started, you would think you were in the Left Bank in Paris. I always felt like I was in heaven at the Pythodd.”

The music was legendary and featured the likes of Pee Wee Ellis, Ron Carter, Wes Montgomery, Ray Bryant, Roy McCurdy and George Benson.

Patrons at Pythodd

A lot has changed since then. The War Memorial is now the Blue Cross Arena, and when big acts come through town, they grace the Jazz Festival stages instead of hanging out in the 3rd Ward.

Jazz Festival director Marc Iacona said he would be open to talking about ways to highlight the history of the Pythodd in the future but cited budget concerns for the lack of collaboration at this time.

“What we’re doing this year is taking a huge part of our budget and providing all free shows at Parcel 5, Midtown Stage and (Martin Luther King Jr.) Park,” Iacona said. “We made that decision this year, and if we can keep getting support, we’re going to provide as many free performances as possible for the community.”

When speaking on a possible tribute to the Pythodd, Iacona said, “It has to make sense.”

Clarence Becton on drums plays the Pythodd Club in this circa 1961 photo.

“What I don’t want to ever do is take away from anyone’s identity,” he said. “The minute you start to collaborate, it better be a collaboration, so it doesn’t take the identity away from either party.”

Iacona said the festival is grateful for the great musicians who have shaped Rochester’s history with jazz music and invites them to come out and experience the young artist “keeping the genre of jazz alive.”

When asked what a nod to Clarissa Street and the Pythodd could look like in years to come, Iacona talked about the need for commitment.

“The ideas are great,” he said, “but someone has to be that implementer, and this festival is so large now.”

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Radio music director Lucas wrote his senior thesis on the Pythodd, which served as Rochester’s stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” an underground network of venues that gave Black artists a chance to perform during a time in this country where segregation barred them from white-owned clubs and hotels.

When musicians played the Clarissa Street staple, it wasn’t unusual for them to stay and eat at the homes of the locals.

The Pythodd's house band in a back room at the Pythodd. Gap Mangione Sextet, 1960. Gap Mangione (piano), Chuck Mangione (trumpet), Dick Sampson (bass), Warren Greenlea (sax), Roy McCurdy (drums) and Larry Combs (sax).

“Think of someone like Drake coming in town and not staying at a hotel, but staying at your house,” Lucas said. “Think of yourself paying a dollar to get in; you’re wearing your best clothes like you’re going to church, but you’re not dancing. You’re there just to listen to music without words and maybe drink a little bit with your friends and talk.”

According to jazz keyboardist and local legend Gap Mangione, it was the place to gather and have a good time. Mangione and his brother Chuck frequently played the Pythodd.

Clarissa Street during the early 50's.

“It had a very folksy neighborhood bar kind of atmosphere,” Mangione said. “There was a real connection between the musicians and those who were attending.”

The Rochester Institute of Technology was located downtown in the heart of the 3rd Ward before moving to Henrietta in 1968. RIT’s location was a prime reason for the Pythodd’s racial harmony rarely seen elsewhere during that era in Rochester. Everyone who shares their memories remembers an equal mix of white and Black patrons.

“It’s not that racism didn’t exist, but it didn’t exist in the Pythodd,” Gloria Winston said.

Musicians played Jazz selections curated to match the era on the reconstructed Pythodd Club stage.

City planning policies that some deem racist would close the Pythodd and gentrify Clarissa Street, transforming the 3rd Ward into Corn Hill.

In subsequent years, the Clarissa Street reunion and organizers with Teen Empowerment have worked to keep the story of Pythodd alive and relevant. The exhibit, which focuses on stories shared by community elders, is just one example of that push to preserve Black history and elevate its impact on Rochester.

Lucas said the Jazz Festival must do more each year to incorporate and acknowledge the Pythodd’s place in Rochester’s jazz history.

“They should have one of their rooms, clubs, or venues named after the Pythodd,” Lucas said. “For me, you can never do enough.”

George Fontenette addresses a crowd getting ready for a walking tour of Clarissa Street.

Where to learn more

Teen Empowerment and Clarissa Uprooted are hosting several events during Jazz Fest, including an exhibit featuring a recreation of the Pythodd inside RIT’s City Art Space downtown across the street from Parcel 5, where Jazz Fest headliners will perform.

Here is a list of the Clarissa Street/Pythodd-inspired events occurring during Jazz Fest:

  • Wednesday, June 22, 2-5 p.m.:  Intergenerational tribute to the Pythodd, live jazz backing up Teen Empowerment youth poets, Live DJ spinning vinyl classic & funky jazz mashups, and a tribute to BeBop poet and Clarissa Street native, bobby johnson.
  • Saturday, June 25, 1-5 p.m.:  Friends and family of historic Clarissa Street gather to celebrate music surrounded by Clarissa Street memories. (Public is welcomed)

Contact Robert Bell at: rlbell@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @byrobbell & Instagram: @byrobbell

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