By STEVE PFARRER
When John Piskor opened his Cajun-style restaurant, Gombo Nola Kitchen & Oyster Bar, in Northampton last year, he said he eventually wanted it to turn it into something akin to a New Orleans cafe, where people come out for a drink and live music after dinner is over.
Now that’s about to happen, as Gombo gears up to offer music on Friday and Saturday nights, starting with a burst of New Orleans jazz in February to celebrate the Mardi Gras season.
“Food and music just go together in New Orleans,” said Piskor, who featured live music at one of his previous restaurants, JP’s Steakhouse in Southampton. “It’s all about creating a mood and having a good time … we want to recreate some of that flavor here.”
The restaurant’s general decor and vibe, Piskor said, is designed to match the ambiance of an eatery one might find on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, where music can be found everywhere.
Piskor and Gombo’s manager, Nyah Forth, are still hammering out the details of the schedule. But the plan involves live music starting at 8 p.m. as dinner winds down (the restaurant serves dinner from 4 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with sometimes extended hours on weekends).
Gombo, which can seat up to about 50 people, tested the waters for live music on New Year’s Eve during First Night Northampton, bringing in area rocker BJ Korona and a drummer to play that evening; they pushed tables to the side after dinner to provide some room for dancing.
“We had people in here right up until midnight,” said Piskor. “It was great.”
The live music series kicks off Feb. 2 with the first of three appearances by Evan Arntzen, a clarinetist, saxophonist, vocalist and teacher who plays a range of styles but made his entry into music through New Orleans jazz — a style that’s still central to his playing.
“The first music I learned was early blues and jazz,” said Arntzen, who started on clarinet at age seven and then added saxophone some years later. “People like Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton … so to play at Gombo, with the New Orleans flavor they have, will be a lot of fun.”
Music runs in his family: His grandfather, Lloyd Arntzen, a jazz clarinetist still performing well into his nineties, taught him many of these early standards as well as New-Orleans-style clarinet playing.
Evan Arntzen, who moved to the Valley a few years ago from New York City with his wife, Scout Opatut (an editor at the Gazette), will also play at Gombo Feb. 10 and 16, performing at all three shows with small ensembles including a range of players on other instruments: bass, guitar, drums, piano, banjo and washboard.
He’s played in any number of places during his career — Lincoln Center and Birdland, the Newport, Monterey and Montreal Jazz Festivals — and has been featured on several albums, including multiple Grammy-nominated recordings, and three of his own on which he served as band leader.
Locally, he’s played at the Northampton Jazz Festival, the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, CitySpace in Easthampton, and with the Green Street Trio of Northampton; he’ll also be playing with one of his ensembles in June at The Drake in Amherst.
Like most jazz musicians, he’s made connections with players all over the map, such that the members of his ensembles will be coming from locations like New York City, upstate New York, and Connecticut to join him at Gombo. One of them is his brother, Arnt Arntzen III, who plays guitar and banjo.
“The shows will all be different,” Arntzen said. They’ll also be geared to Gombo’s intimate setting — musicians will play without much electronic amplification — but, he added, “We’ll be able to make some noise.”
And for a little more flavor, Arntzen says, he’ll by playing a 100-year-old soprano sax once owned by the storied clarinetist George Lewis, who was born in New Orleans in 1900 and won widespread recognition in the 1950s and 1960s during a revival of New Orleans traditional jazz.
There won’t be a cover fee for attending a show, but there is an expectation for audience members to order a drink, Forth said (or food if meals are still being served).
Aside from simply offering Gombo customers some live entertainment, Piskor sees this new venture as part of a potential larger musical and economic comeback in downtown Northampton, with the Iron Horse Music Hall poised to reopen in May, and the Calvin Theatre expected to follow suit sometime this year.
“People will come [to Northampton] for the music, they’ll want to have a meal, and hopefully it just creates an engine for the whole downtown,” he said.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.