Ralph Gatta, aka “Johnny Jazz,” did not set out to become an institution. It was never his intent to transform what had been a simple family-owned butcher shop into a working monument to what he considers America’s greatest art form.
All he wanted, really, was to be able to continue experiencing the wonders of jazz after life threw him a curveball back in 1963. With the death of his father, Johnny Gatta, Ralph’s freewheeling Saturday nights at Birdland and other clubs in New York and Newark came to a sudden halt, as he and his mother, Helen, put in 12, 13 hours a day keeping their Shrewsbury Avenue grocery going.
So onto the turntable in the back room went the LPs. And out of the speakers above the shelves of cereal and canned goods and sacks of rice came Bird, and Miles, and Coltrane. All day long. Sometimes at volumes that Helen thought unnecessarily high. But Gatta couldn’t help himself. This is a man who, at 69 years old, still becomes visibly pumped when he hears a great horn riff and sprinkles his speech with references to “top-shelf cats.”
“The bottom line is, without my mother and the musicthe music I couldn’t have done it,” says Gatta. “I just did it for myself, to tell the truth. Because if you’re going to put music in a store, it wouldn’t be real jazz.”
On Sunday, Feb. 18, Gatta will be honored by The Source, an outreach program for students at Red Bank Regional High School.
Why Johnny Jazz? Not because he’s got anything to do with The Source, exactly. But simply for doing what he’s done, which has been to help preserve an art form by infecting his customers, including generations of kids, with his sense of devotion.