This being both the inaugural edition of Seacoast Jazz Notes and the week of this year’s Tommy Gallant Jazz Festival, it seems more than appropriate that we remember the man for whom the Festival was named and who was so central to the Seacoast jazz scene for so many years. Tommy Gallant had a long career as a jazz musician, promoter and educator, studying piano at the University of New Hampshire and music theory at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He was a gifted pianist who taught piano and jazz improvisation at both Phillips Exeter Academy and Berklee. But it was the two decades during which he presided over the Sunday night jazz scene upstairs at The Press Room in Portsmouth for which he is perhaps best remembered on the Seacoast.
The Sunday night jazz tradition began early in The Press Room’s history, back in the late ’70s, when the musician in charge was another Seacoast jazz legend, namely pianist Larry Garland. But, as Larry tells it, “These kids were coming in from Berklee with charts!” So Larry, being a self-taught player who doesn’t read music, had some advice for owner Jay Smith. His advice: “Get Tommy Gallant!”
Larry, of course, went on to establish the Tuesday night jazz tradition downstairs at The Press Room, where for more than 30 years he has led River City Jazz, the host quartet for this popular and influential jam session. And Tommy Gallant continued the Sunday night tradition upstairs until he died in 1998. It was Tommy’s bassist, Jim Howe, who took over the trio’s leadership at that time. Then, when Jim passed on in 2007, Jim was succeeded by pianist Ryan Parker, who continues as the group’s leader to this day.
Tommy Gallant will long be remembered for his commitment to promoting jazz on the Seacoast, for the scope of his musical activities, his personal integrity, enthusiasm, along with his love of humor and his ability to tell a good joke well. At the time of his death, the annual Portsmouth Summer Jazz Festival was renamed in his honor the Tommy Gallant Jazz Festival, the event we celebrate this week in Prescott Park.