By JOHN T. WARD
Now, four years after his death, the beloved jazz-enthralled butcher known to all as “Johnny Jazz” is to about to get a neverending solo.
Borough officials have initiated an effort to name the pocket park at Shrewsbury Avenue and Drs. James Parker Boulevard – the site of a summer jazz concert series – after Johnny Jazz, who’s birth name was Ralph Gatta, Jr.
Gatta was the second-generation owner of what became known as Johnny’s Jazz Market, at 135 Shrewsbury Avenue. His parents had started the business, and when the elder Gatta – Ralph Sr., known as “Johnny” – died suddenly in 1963, the son reluctantly stepped in to help his mother carry on.
He never left. But having been torn away from the nightlife of Newark and New York, where he once steeped himself in shows at Birdland and other clubs and schmoozed with those he called “top-shelf cats” at the bars between and after sets, Gatta transformed the store into a ramshackle museum of the art form.
While selling steaks and boxes of cereal, Gatta spent the next 47 years enveloping his customers in a cocoon of jazz sounds, imagery and anecdotes. A constant stream of jazz played over the store’s stereo. Every available surface was covered with memorabilia and hand-scrawled tributes to great players. Album covers were stapled to walls, and names and birthdates of musicians were taped to the lip of a shelf and the front door.
Gatta died on December 18, 2011 at the age of 74. Shortly after his death, officials talked about ceremonially renaming a stretch of Shrewsbury Avenue for him, but that never happened.
Over the years, though, the park has hosted numerous intimate jazz concerts, including one in 2012 specifically dedicated to Gatta’s memory. Councilwoman Juanita Lewis, who introduced the motion at the December 3 meeting of the mayor and council to honor Gatta, said the recreation department’s vision committee, “thought it would be a fitting tribute to Johnny Jazz because of the jazz concerts held there.”
Dictating an ordinance as though soloing, Mayor Pasquale Menna cited Gatta as an “invaluable ambassador for the arts.”
He said the park should be called the Ralph “Johnny Jazz” Park, vetoing the word “memorial,” which several council members had suggested be included.
“I don’ think he’d like the term ‘memorial,'” Menna said. Leaving it out “makes it seem like it’s still around.”
A vote on the ordinance to rename the site is expected at next Wednesday’s borough council meeting.
“My uncle just loved Red Bank, and particularly that neighborhood on the West Side,” Gatta’s niece, Mary Gatta, told redbankgreen. “Having a community park named for him in the community he loved so much is such an honor.”
Here’s a redbankgreen profile of Gatta from 2007.