I walked into Johnny’s Jazz Grocery on the West Side of Red Bank, NJ sometime in the late 1990’s with curiosity. I had been into Jazz music, but someone told me that I had to check the place out. The owner was an absolute Jazz nut, get over and talk to him. After visiting the place just once, I left with a lasting impression and a portrait of a man who loved Jazz music and everything that went along with it. Ralph Gatta, aka Johnny Jazz, who unfortunately passed in 2011, was a Jazz aficionado, butcher and grocer that ran Johnny’s Jazz Market for over 4 decades. When I walked into the joint that day 15 years ago, there were Jazz record covers hanging everywhere, Jazz quotes written in sharpie on handmade cardboard signs and wooden support beams, old newspaper clippings of Jazz shows and musicians tacked up, and piles of tapes. What I didn’t know is that Gatta had two loves: the love for the community as well as Jazz. He served the ever changing clientele, which changed from Italian and Irish to African American to Jamaican to Latin throughout the time it was open. Johnny Jazz provided a service to that community, often extending credit to customers who couldn’t afford food. His service didn’t stop there, he gave each and every person who would listen a Jazz lesson. These lessons I carry with me today.
At the time, I was heavy into Blue Note, and I spoke of Lou Donaldson. He then pulled out a tape of a live show from Newark or NYC that he recorded from WKCR or another Jazz station. Donaldson stopped playing and said on the tape: “Go on over to Johnny’s Jazz Market, get yourself a pork chop.” I knew that this guy was the real deal. The man lived and breathed Jazz music. All Day. Every day. He called Lou Donaldson and Max Roach friend. He went to local schools to teach children about Jazz. He gave you an education with his signature raspy voice when you walked in the market for as long as you wanted. Johnny Jazz preached the gospel of Jazz from the pulpit right next to the salt pork, ethnic seasonings, laundry detergent, and orange juice. You could spend all day in there talking about Jazz. Sometimes I wish the guy were still around to talk to, one of the great unknown Jazz historians of our time. He knew all the players, the music, and everything about the genre. He lived it. I haven’t thought about Johnny Jazz in a minute, but when I pulled out some Lou Donaldson to listen to today, it reminded me of him.
“I can’t listen to the radio! How can you listen to the radio when you can listen to Coltrane? – Johnny Jazz
The tsotchkes were a shrine to Jazz music and the grocery store itself was the church. You could hear all kinds of Jazz playing in there every day up until he went into the hospital and the grocery store ultimately closed. I have no idea what became of the store, the actual Jazz signatures that were on the wall, the records, the tapes, the music, or the hand written signs of Ralph Gatta. Most likely gone as quickly as the store itself. Progress and enterprise don’t stop to preserve the past, especially one like this. Gilda Rogers made a short documentary of Gatta and the store last year, which you can watch below. It’s a great look into the man’s life work. For now, the spirit of Johnny Jazz lives on through Jazz music. We may have lost the grocery store, but we will never lose the music. Here’s to Johnny’s Jazz Market, a staple in that community for decades, a learning annex for those who would listen, and one of the most unique establishments I had the pleasure of checking out. To some it was just a grocery market, but to Johnny Jazz it was his way of keeping Jazz music alive. Rest In Peace Johnny Jazz, you were the real deal.
Documentary on Johnny’s Jazz Market by Gilda Rogers