At first glance, the Squirrel Hill Sports Bar fits the Pittsburgh dive stereotype perfectly. Pool balls click over the dull sound of a sportscaster. Hunched patrons clutch drinks as they gesture for the bartender's attention, nibble on popcorn and squash cigarette butts in ashtrays. Sunday nights are especially subdued, with the work week looming just hours away. Yet for the patrons who stick around long enough after an afternoon of football, the weekend rallies once more.
Around 9 p.m., a curious procession of various sized drums, bags and metal poles marches its way across the room. Carrying them is Jules Coulson, a Pittsburgh musician known for his work as a drummer, DJ and sound engineer. A pile of gear forms on an unassuming stage in the back of the bar. As Coulson begins to set up his drums, the bar owner, Barry White, emerges from the kitchen wearing a Steeler's cap to shake Coulson's hand.
The front door of the bar swings open again and Beni Rossman enters with his bass slung across his back like a backpack. Rossman is a staple in the local music scene. Chances are, if you have seen live music locally in the past several years, you've probably heard him holding down the low end.
Rossman joins Coulson on stage as they drag speakers, unwind cables and catch up on each other's recent gigs. The door swings open a third time and Shane McLaughlin arrives, hugging his Fender Blues Deluxe amp to his chest and smiling over the glasses that have fallen down his nose as he approaches the stage. Together, they are the "all-star" house band for the Sunday night jam sessions.
The trio begins to make noise, as snare hits, bass runs and guitar squawks randomly splatter the sonic palate of the bar. After the musicians have tuned up and are comfortable, they fall silent. As Coulson nods to the bartender, the announcer fades away and the TV above the stage is pulled up into the ceiling. The musicians make eye contact before launching into the first tune.
As the music revs up, the bar fills with positive sonic energy, emitting from the stage. Patrons laugh out loud and smack each other on the back. A steady flow of musicians begin to populate the bar, and friends who recognize each other embrace and shout over the wail of McLaughlin's guitar.
After the house band plays a short set of groovy rock and funk tunes, fresh musicians are called up to the stage from a sign-up sheet. In some jam sessions, the musician being called up to the stage is under immediate scrutiny, but the environment at the Sports Bar takes a friendlier tone. As the musicians jam deep into the night, the on-stage antics become increasingly vibrant. The performers really stretch out and have fun.
Jam sessions originally stem from the jazz tradition, and the session at the Squirrel Hill Sports Bar is no exception. Chance combinations of musicians on stage create improvised arrangements of tunes in a fashion reminiscent of a jazz jam. This fertile environment creates truly unique moments of artistic expression. At the same time, the session also serves as a hangout for a community of friends and a motley cast of characters that include professional musicians, students, amateur pickers and live music enthusiasts.
For more information on the Squirrel Hill Sports Bar jam session, check out their Facebook group.