Amid the backdrop of lively chatter and clinking glasses, Johnny Case launched into an upbeat blues number. Backed by drums and upright bass, the pianist eased into a solo, walking out lines and riffs as he laid the groundwork for a swell of tremolos and block chords that elevated each successive 12-bar journey. By the end of his opening, thick chords filled the room with thunderous effect. Case dropped down to sparse comping as the solos of bassist Nathan Phelps — son of famed local bassist Drew Phelps — explored the full range of his instrument. Next up was multi-instrumentalist Keith Wingate on drums, who launched into percussive explosions with seemingly endless layers of complexity. After several minutes, Case closed out the song that never dipped in intensity or technical mastery on the part of the trio members.
You could tell the guys were glad to be back at it.
COVID has been a huge setback for the performing arts in general, Case told me that night. To help the local arts community, on Saturday he is headlining a fundraiser concert that he organized at Arts Fifth Avenue, a nonprofit space that hosts concerts and art shows.
“I thought it’d be a good idea to have a concert to celebrate Arts Fifth Avenue,” Case said. “All proceeds go to the venue. I’m taking care of the musicians myself.”
The concert will feature Phelps, Wingate, and special guest Chris McGuire, who performs on a variety of woodwind instruments.
Case has been a local jazz mainstay for decades. After 28 years of performing six nights a week at Sardines Ristorante Italiano, a charming defunct spot near the Cultural District, the pianist briefly played at Niles City Hall Saloon in the Stockyards and more recently at Lili’s Bistro on the Near Southside. On the recent night I caught his trio, he was tearing it up at the resplendently named Pinky’s Champagne Room and Velvet Jazz Lounge on the Near Southside. The new venue that abuts High Top Grub and Pub is headed by bar/restaurant veteran John Cocke. The dim, cozy space is perfect for jazz, Case said.
“I like it,” Case said. “It’s comfortable. I wouldn’t change a thing about the way they have things set up. Even though [Cocke] is new with doing anything with jazz, he seems to understand the needs of musicians. Part of that is asking questions.”
COVID, he continued, didn’t delay his work terribly long. After a 10-week break at Lili’s, Case resumed performing with a bassist following the start of the pandemic.
Case said he feels he is in a good place now. From 6 to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays, he plays a solo piano set at Pinky’s, and the Johnny Case Trio alternates there on Saturday evenings. The new music program is evolving with open jam sessions and visiting ensembles throughout the week. The variety, Case said, is good for the local community and Pinky’s.
“There are so many different types of jazz,” Case said. “Our type of jazz may be perfect for some people but not others. Keeping the variety here is probably going to be good for the establishment. It takes some of the pressure off of us. Hopefully, people will like it.”
The crowd that night had clearly come to take in live jazz — something that remains, unfortunately, a novelty in the city that birthed jazz greats Ornette Coleman, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Dewey Redman. Cocke told me he is dedicated to seeing Pinky’s grow a reputation as a destination for live music and, of course, a wide selection of sparkling wines.