Sounds of the City: The Tralf
A story of success, evolution, and survival
They did, and their club survived and flourished. While the original location in Theatre Place has changed, the Tralf Music Hall remains as a lynchpin of the downtown entertainment complex. But first, back to the mud pit (which eventually was replaced by Metro Rail). Theatre Place’s construction was completed by the mid-eighties, housing an impressive atrium, apartments, and several restaurants. Envisioned by Mayor Jimmy Griffin and economic development commissioner Larry Quinn, Theatre Place was intended to help revive Buffalo’s theater district, with the Tralfamadore Café as the anchor. “We were sort of the pioneers to go in first—with the help of the city and some investors,” says former Tralf proprietor Ed Lawson.
Ed and Bob Lawson opened the original Tralfamadore Café in 1975 in a basement space at Main and Fillmore. Named for a fictional planet in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the Tralfamadore “was one of the truly great jazz clubs in Buffalo history … but it was far more than that, it was a great all around art center” says local jazz critic Jeff Simon.
Ed Lawson built a dominant reputation for himself as well as the venue for a dedication to music and the audience over money. (Spyro Gyra used to play for $1 at the door every Thursday.) There was one incident in which Lawson removed tables and seats from the floor so that the band Double Image could correctly position their vibraphones in the Tralfamadore’s confined space. On another occasion, he managed to quell the anger of star diva Carmen McRae, who threatened not to sing as Lawson’s office would not suffice for the dressing room her contract required. After talking with Lawson, McRae not only used the office as a dressing room, but played what Simon deemed a spectacular show. “It wasn’t all about the almighty dollar,” says former Tralf owner and saxophone legend Bobbie Militello, a sentiment that has prevailed in the venue for a good portion of its existence.
Clockwise, from top: The old Tralf on Main at Fillmore, February 1980; former Tralf manager Bobby Militello; James E. Rolls. Alan Dewart, Brian Dewart, and Ed Lawson making a toast at the opening of the new Tralf in Buffalo's Theater District. Photos courtesy of Sharon J. Peiner, Bobby Militello, and Alan Dewart, respectively.
When the original Tralf had to close, due to Metro Rail construction, Quinn got in touch with Lawson, Tralf associate Fred Fadel, Seneca Development owner Alan Dewart and his brother Brian, and attorney James Rolls to plan the Theatre Place club. The group scoured clubs in major cities across the northeast in order to create “the finest jazz club of its kind and size in the country” says Alan Dewart, adding, “You’d be hard pressed to find one that had better sight-lines, better acoustics, better lighting.” Although many jazz fans lamented the decline in intimacy from the old location, Theatre Place proved a successful location, and Ed Lawson continued his brother Bob’s practice of bringing in locally unknown international acts, like the Nigerian juju musician King Sunny Ade.
Militello, a Buffalo Music Hall of Famer, began managing the Tralf in 1996. He restored it to prominence, after some years of financial trouble, and estimates that more than half a million people came downtown to the Tralf annually for almost 250 shows, as well as fundraisers, high school band performances, book readings, and other public and private events.
Remodeled dressing rooms, a state-of-the-art sound system, improved acoustics, a more efficient kitchen and a new V.I.P. club for patrons were all part of Militello’s efforts to keep the Tralf a Buffalo institution. “I did all kinds of things in order to make the place more palatable for both the musicians and the audience, and it showed; the reaction of the people was undoubtedly great,” he says. Militello also continued to bring in acts like Diana Krall, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and David Sanborn. Anthony Marfione—who Militello calls “the best booker I ever had”— introduced alternative acts like the Goo Goo Dolls, Our Lady Peace, the Lowest of the Low, and 54-40, and says the Tralf was doing better financially than it had ever before.
However, in 2002, with roughly $200,000 and six years of elbow grease in the room, the Tralf was wrestled away from Militello when Theatre Place was bought by Acquest Development. Of Acquest’s head, William Huntress, Militello says, “He professed that I wouldn’t sign a lease, but the lease that he had for me was not a lease; it was this hodgepodge of two different buildings, and there was stuff in there that had nothing to do with our building.”
The room was turned over to a young entrepreneur, Rohit Kapoor, who renamed the club the New Tralf. After about a year of renovations made illegal by a failure to obtain permits, updates to a sound system that had already been well-liked and respected, failure to pay off debts and a drop-off in acts as well as patrons, the New Tralf closed its doors. “When I was there the room was known around the world. I don’t care what it brought to me in dollars, what it brought to the city of Buffalo was a hell of a lot of pride,” says Militello.
In 2006, the late promoter Peter Goretti took over the Tralf, bringing it back from the brink of extinction. His daughter, Lauren, continues to be involved in the club’s operations, although ESI Entertainment’s Tom Barone has taken over management.
This October, the Tralf Music Hall will celebrate its thirtieth year in Buffalo’s Theatre District. On October 12, former owners/managers Ed Lawson, Ed Smith, Alan Dewart, Bobby Militello, and Barone will all be present for a gala, including a show by Spyro Gyra, the multiple-Grammy nominated, University of Buffalo-born band that played the grand opening at the Tralf’s current location. “It’s a memorial to everyone’s experience. They say ‘I went to that show at the Tralf back in ’88,’ and they’ll come back in 2008 and again in 2018,” says Peter Durbin, who has been a part of the Tralf’s production team for twenty years.
Barone is dedicated to the Tralf’s history of eclectic entertainment: “There are so many indie bands and good jam bands, and really good, original singer/songwriter, folk music things that just work in the room,” he says. “We’ve always had a pulse on local music and we’ve always tried to be involved with it; at this point we’re going to try to make a bigger impact.” That sums up the Tralf’s history: always evolving, always exploring, ultimately surviving.
Matthew Riley was coeditor of Spree’s Performing Arts Guide. He is a recent graduate of Niagara University.