Student creates alcohol-free performance venue

January 23, 2007

University Park, Pa. -- Saxophonist Greg Johnson is a veteran of the local music scene. Over the last few years, he has performed with some of the top jazz musicians in State College as a member of the Valley Jazz Orchestra and as a guest performer with other jazz groups. He also has formed a few professional groups of his own, and performs regularly downtown with a rock band as well. He has become adept at seizing every opportunity afforded him to further his music.

Unfortunately for this 18-year-old Penn State freshman, that means he also spends a lot of time in bars -- which are the main night and weekend entertainment venues in State College.

"Playing in underground bars has become a normal experience for me," Johnson said. "My roommate complains about the smoke smell, but I can no longer smell it." Fortunately, aside from sometimes having to deal with performing before a rowdy crowd, Johnson is not affected by the alcohol surrounding him while he plays. "The research I have done on alcohol consumption has pointed entirely to negative effects on musical performance," he said. "Even though alcohol is present during every performance, I have never felt pressured to drink any."

Still, performing in bars as a teenager is not the best situation, and the smoke-filled rooms don't do much for his health. So with the help and guidance of his friend and mentor Rick Hirsch, Johnson has worked to create what his hometown lacks: a venue that is smoke-free, alcohol-free, and open for kids and adults alike to have a good time.

"Rick thought up the idea," Johnson said. "He has already established himself on the State College music scene, and he wanted to give me a chance to develop an arrangement book of my own, as well as encourage the youth of this town to make State College an up-and-coming jazz town."

According to Johnson, Hirsch contacted several venues, and found Sozo's open to the idea. "I took it from there, and am trying to implement the idea to the best of my ability," he said. His implementation of the idea includes opening up the stage to other musicians. While the Greg Johnson Quintet is the official house band, Johnson said that all musicians are welcome to sit in.

The newly created Jazz Jam @ Sozo's kicks off from 7 to 9 p.m. this Sunday, Jan. 28, at 256 E. Beaver Ave. in downtown State College. Instead of alcohol, coffee and espresso will be the featured beverages. "If this event catches on, it will become a regularly scheduled event," and State College will have a venue for those who like to listen to -- or make -- music but are not into the bar scene, he said.

"I would encourage college kids of all musical backgrounds to come to this," Johnson said. Some members of the rock band with whom he plays will be at the jam with their guitars, electric basses, percussion and drums. "The music won't be limited to jazz, but will focus on spontaneity and creativity," Johnson said. "It will be a great time."

  • Greg Johnson has worked to set up an alcohol-free, smoke-free venue for music downtown.

    IMAGE: Annemarie Mountz
Last Updated November 18, 2010