The Press Room (TPR) in downtown Portsmouth dubs itself “Portsmouth’s most intimate live music venue,” and it’s true.
Established in November of 1976, TPR has been host to countless musicians over the years throughout its three owners. On Tuesday nights, the venue and restaurant honors local jazz pianist Larry Garland with Jazz Jam.
But for TPR, the Jazz Jam is just another way for the venue to connect with its roots and give back to the community who has given TPR so much.
“Larry Garland is a local legend,” TPR General Manager Erin Mahoney of Kittery, ME, said while sipping coffee. “He did so much for this community, and the music community specifically. He ran the jazz nights for years here.”
Per their website, Garland played piano at TPR for over 40 years where he welcomed people of all ages and skill levels to play with him and a band at the Jazz Jams. Today, the jams are held in Garland’s honor as he can no longer play at TPR.
“Ask anyone about Larry and they have nothing but good things to say,” Mahoney said.
The Press Room was founded by Jay Smith, a local journalist, philanthropist and music lover who wanted to create a space “for local musicians to perform and their fans to gather for ‘nourishment of the body, mind, and spirit.”’ Over the years, TPR became famous for their nightly specials including the Tuesday Jazz Jams, a more formal jazz show on Sunday nights, open mic nights, bluegrass jams on Friday nights and more.
In 1995, Smith sold TPR to the owner of Boston’s Rattlesnake Bar & Grill, Jay Gardner. Gardner spent 21 years at the helm, splitting his time between Boston and Portsmouth to keep the traditions of both venues alive. He decided to sell the business and building in late 2016; however, the building was in disrepair, and would force the closure of TPR for the first time in 40 years.
“So, when we got into this building, we realized actually how much work had to be done. We thought it was essentially going to be a three-month rent out and then we’d be back in here,” Mahoney said. “That was not the case.”
The Press Room needed a total refurbishing. Bars, tables, chairs, lights, stages and more were gutted from the space.
“The only thing that remains are the walls and the joists that are above our heads,” Mahoney laughed. “Everything else is brand spanking new.”
Current owner Josh Sheets, a Hampton, NH native, and his Managing Partner Chris Greiner, who acquired the venue in June of 2017, were able to reopen TPR’s doors on November 4, 2018.
“It was really important for us to keep some of the traditions that The Press Room always had alive,” Mahoney said, hence the continuation of Jazz Jam and more shows.
The renovations also included a state of the art sound and light system for the main stage. There used to be only two floors with a closed off attic space. During the construction, the ceiling was knocked away and the former attic now houses a few tables and the control boards for the stage.
The Press Room features three floors of music, food and drink in a long and narrow space. Located on 77 Daniel Street, behind a heavy black door, the downstairs area is quiet and intimate with a bar, some high top tables and a lounge style area. The kitchen is also located on the first floor.
Mahoney emphasized the importance of the food program at TPR today compared to what it used to be. She said customers who have returned over the years “didn’t always have such a progressive food program. It was pretty basic and now we have a chef that’s really, very talented and serving some great food,” Mahoney said.
That would be Chef Josh Peterson who created a diverse 31 item menu including appetizers, salads, sandwiches, entrees, desserts and 21+ milkshakes. A bar located on the first floor and another on the second pour local and domestic beers, wine and various handcrafted cocktails. Mahoney said it’s really all for the customers, who can enjoy dinner and a show rather than just a show.
“Now, people are eating, staying longer and making it kind of part of their Tuesday tradition, which is awesome,” she said.
While trying to stick to their traditions, TPR is also branching out through monthly comedy shows, monthly art shows, hanging local artists’ works on the walls for sale and participating for the first time in Restaurant Week.
Last Tuesday’s Jazz Jam was headlined by the River City Jazz Band, originally started by Garland himself. It was held on the main stage on the second floor. The River City Jazz Band’s guitarist has been playing at TPR for over 20 years.
“Well I have the unfortunate name of Woody Allen, but I had it before he did, he changes his name,” he said. Allen said Garland stepped away from the Jazz Jams a few years back and ever since he has been trying to keep them alive by hosting. He described Garland as “a piano guy and a great singer.” Jeff Auger now fills in on the piano with Allen, who were also accompanied by a drummer and a bassist.
Allen has been playing the guitar for 54 years, and laughed when he said he thinks he should be a lot better. Yet, through his time playing at TPR, he said the new space is much more enjoyable for the fans and the band.
“It used to be real funky downstairs. The floor wasn’t that great, you had to push the piano player out of the way if you wanted to take a leak and people were sitting right in your lap,” Allen said. “It was real cozy that way. This is a little more formal, and millennial or something.”
Allen said there are other people who host Jazz Jam but the River City Jazz Band will host at least two per month.
The Jazz Jams are very much jams. It was Garland’s vision to have an open space for jazz musicians to play together. While the upstairs is still a very intimate venue, with the closest table being only a few feet from the stage, Allen recognized it can be a little more intimidating than it was before the renovations. But continuously hosting these jams and inviting people back is their way to honor the tradition.
I didn’t really know what to expect when walking up Daniel Street after parking my car. I like jazz, I don’t listen to it regularly and I’d never heard of The Press Room.
But after doing some research on my own, talking with Mahoney and Allen, I was ready to enjoy the rest of the night.
The River City Jazz Band really jams. As soon as I opened the door at the top of the stairs, I could hear the music playing. It was soothing after snowboarding all Tuesday morning. The crowd was a healthy mix of older and younger people eating, drinking and enjoying the show.
The space was dimly lit, which complimented the red and blue colors coming down from the lights above the band. Only about half of the tables were full when I first arrived but by the end the room was full. While the space didn’t lend itself to dancing, some people seemed eager to and were almost dancing in their seats while the band jammed out.
I took some photos and listened to the band play for a while, occasionally joined by an older man playing flute and saxophone. While I didn’t recognize anything being played, the notes were floating through the air at the perfect pitch and rhythm. The music was up-beat, soulful and jazzy.
After speaking with Mahoney about the history of TPR and the food, I had to try it out. I’d seen other people’s food pass by me as the servers carried it to their tables and it all looked amazing. I’d never heard anyone describe a food menu as “progressive,” but that’s exactly what it was. The dishes were creative, inspirational, modern and affordable.
The menu itself was something I hadn’t seen at a venue like this before. Obviously it had the food listed on it, but the menu also had the schedule of events for the whole month printed on newsprint paper and folded into a pamphlet. After perusing the menu for a while, I decided on a Sip of Sunshine beer and the fried chicken sandwich.
The sandwich comes with a pan fried thigh, Swiss cheese, onion and pickle slaw and a Cajun remoulade served with French fries. Despite being of Swiss heritage, I actually hate Swiss cheese and substituted cheddar.
The food came out in about 10 or 15 minutes, and having worked in food service, that said to me the chicken was cooked to order, perfect. Served on a thick sesame seed bun with a mountain of fries, it looked amazing.
The fries were cooked and seasoned to perfection. They were thin and crispy, just how I like them. The chicken was also seasoned nicely, and with a slight kick to the seasoning itself, it reminded me of a southern fried chicken recipe. I personally love onions and pickles and the slaw the cheese covered thigh was resting on was tangy and filled with herbs. The Cajun sauce spread on the bun was smoky and spicy, tying all the flavors together so nicely it was hard to put down.
That sandwich didn’t stand a chance, but the fries put up a fight and I had to tap out eventually.
When all was said and done, my stomach was full of a good beer and a better sandwich while my memory of The Press Room will be one filled with incredible jazz music. While I was eating, some attendees hopped on stage including a drummer, bassist, pianist and a few trumpet players to really honor the jam in Jazz Jam.
I will definitely be back.
The Press Room hosts Jazz Jam every Tuesday night from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. Metered parking is available at the Wright Avenue lot or you can take the Wildcat Transit Portsmouth route and use the Market Square stop only a couple blocks down from The Press Room.