John Gatta wields giant scissors as he dedicates the new park named for his late brother, Ralph ‘Johnny Jazz’ Gatta Jr. (seen below), as Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer applauds. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
For 47 years, while cutting meat and selling boxes of rice and cereal, Red Bank butcher Ralph ‘Johnny Jazz’ Gatta Jr. preached the gospel of an American musical art form he deeply loved, and wanted his customers to hear as he heard it.
On Monday night, borough residents showed they had heard, and had been touched by both his love of jazz and his generosity as a grocer.
At a brief ceremony tinged with fondness, humor and a bit of live jazz, the site at the corner of Shrewsbury Avenue and Drs. James Parker Boulevard was named in honor of the late jazz-enthralled butcher.
Gatta, who died in December, 2011 at the age of 74, 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 Ralph Sr., known as “Johnny,” died suddenly in 1963, the son reluctantly stepped in to help his mother carry on.
He stayed put for the next 47 years, never marrying, working seven days a week and serving a neighborhood in constant change.
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.
In remarks at the park dedication, Ralph’s brother John remembered the store as a place where “bebop was played loud every hour of the day for nearly five decades.” His late mother used to implore Ralph to lower the volume, but his brother “rarely did,” he said.
“A genuine-hearted man, he stayed true to his passions and his community,” Gatta told several dozen onloookers, noting that his brother would often allow customers to buy on credit that he never called in. “He made the world what he needed it to be, and he did it by serving his community.”
Former Councilwoman Juanita Lewis, who initiated the park dedication idea, remembered the store as a refuge, whether someone wanted “slab bacon, or just a place to sit and learn” about an art form from a grocer who had it in his veins.
Gatta’s longtime friends, jazz musicians Al and Ruth Wright, performed a sprightly version of Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train,” which Ruth said was a Gatta favorite.
The park is the site of summer jazz concerts hosted by the borough parks & rec department.
Here’s a redbankgreen profile of Gatta from 2007.