‘To roam the two narrow aisles of Johnnys Jazz Market for the first time is to wonder what in hell kind of phantasmagoria one has wandered into. This may be the only grocery store in the world that, simply by walking in, you get an unimpeded view into the head of its proprietor. Except that Johnny Jazz would tell you that its the contents of his heart, not his cranium, that are on display.
A first visit to Johnnys Jazz Market on Shrewsbury Avenue has a double time-warp quality to it.
First, Johnnys is a Mom & Pop-style grocery and butcher shop, the kind of tin-ceilinged place that anchored thousands of American neighborhoods before they went all but extinct during the great wave of postwar suburbanization. So its a throwback to the way households once provisioned themselves with cleansing powder, breakfast cereal and beef.
But any association with Norman Rockwell simplicity that might be suggested by the above is subverted upon ones actually crossing the stores red and black-framed doorway. Because to roam the two narrow aisles of Johnnys is to wonder what in hell kind of phantasmagoria one has wandered into.
Well-worn album covers are stapled high on the walls and behind the top shelves lined with canned goods. Clippings from old newspapers, sometimes supplemented by handwritten ink scrawlings, are taped to other surfaces. There are blurry photographs, and still more clippings with still more scrawlings pieced together with electrical tape and suspended from the ceiling by time-yellowed twine; at one time, the clippings and pictures were framed, but that formality went out the window at some point. Theres a trumpet protruding from a pillar. And on what appears to be every square inch of wall space are more scrawlings. They announce the birthdays of jazz greats, or song titles, or cryptic quotations from lyrics.
As suggested by the stores name, Johnnys Jazz Market is a living monument to a time within a time, an unending work of devotion by its creator to his one abiding love: jazz. This may be the only grocery store in the world that, simply by walking in, you get an unimpeded view into the head of its proprietor. Except that Johnny Jazz would tell you that its the contents of his heart, not his cranium, that are on display.
Either way, its far out.
Max Roach stopped here when he was at the Count Basie, around 1991,” Gatta says with a rasp in his voice. “He said hed never seen a place like this.
His customers call him Johnny Jazz, because what else would you call the owner and sole employee of Johnnys Jazz Market, the guy whos been working the counter since before most of them were born, and who talks incessantly of Billie Holliday and Lou Donaldson, Sonny Stitt, Dinah Washingtonwith whom he shared a long night of drinks in 1958Stan Getz and other top-shelf cats? How would you know, unless you knew, that his name isnt Johnny, but Ralph?
The real Johnny was Ralphs father, who bought the store from Henry Scaccia in the early 1940s. In 1963, Johnny Gatta died. Ralph, then 25 years old, had just gotten out of the Army, and was working by day as a butcher at the Acme in Fair Haven and making nightly jaunts into Greenwich Village, and to Newark, and to other great Petri dishes of jazz. Somewhat reluctantly, Ralph took over the business.
Just like that, an obsession with live jazz and the musicians who made it was thwarted. Period. Full stop. No more nights at his beloved Birdland. It was hard for me, because I was working seventy, eighty, a hundred hours of week, Gatta says. I knew all these cats.
But the love didnt fade. I couldnt get out anymore, so I brought the music into the store, he says. It poured forth from the records and tape recordings he amassed. It spilled out of the man himself, compulsively, onto scraps of brown paper used to wrap meat, onto cardboard that had been a carrier of mayonnaise jars. It went on until the store became a thicket of spontaneous exuberant outbursts captured in heavy marker on whatever was at hand when they were laid down. Riffs, you might say, from a man who doesnt play, but understands what it means to blow, Johnnys term for making jazz, or letting the jazz make itself.
I was doing it for my own pleasure, but it caught on, Gatta says. One of the cats said, Hey man, you got the real music here. I said, I cant listen to the radio! How can you listen to the radio when you can listen to Coltrane?
Gatta lives above the business by himself. The deeper he got into being Johnny Jazz the storekeeper, the clearer it became that life as a grocer was ruining his chances of marriage. Because what woman in her right mind would want to be Mrs. Johnny Jazz, committing herself to incredibly long days in a business whose profit was measured in coins?
Hell be 69 years old in October. What comes next, hes not sure. But he feels looked after. The ethnicity of his clientele has changed, from Irish and Italian to African-American and Puerto Rican to Central American, and each departing wave has its regulars who still drop in to say hello, maybe buy a pack of smokes. Al Wright, a fine jazz drummer” who lives in Red Bank, checks in. Maria Ursino, who grew up around the corner on Herbert Street and now lives in Little Silver, has been coming here all her life. She still stops in every day for a newspaper.
Ralph stays the same, she says. The store stays the same.
Until inspiration strikes, that is, and Johnny Jazz reaches for his magic marker.