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Farewell to a big man with a tiny trumpet

Mike Pitrie made the Fillmore his home base.

JAZZ | Anthony Torres

Mike “Coffee Picasso” Pitre, a true original local jazz talent and music scene treasure, died of a heart attack on December 18, leaving friends and admirers stunned at the sudden departure of the Bohemian Knuckleboogie lead man. He was 44.

I can still vividly remember that first sighting of Coffee and Bohemian Knuckleboogie a couple of years ago at Sheba Piano Lounge on Fillmore — the sound offering a unique blend of New Orleans jazz, soul and blues. It was difficult not to notice Mike Pitre, a larger than life black man, blowing a tiny pocket trumpet with an electric guitar draped over his torso. He sang with a style and voice that was incredibly hip and uniquely his own.

After that, I saw the band on numerous occasions — both at Sheba and up the block at Rasselas — and am still reflecting on Pitre and grappling with the nuances and peculiarities of his interpretations of jazz and popular standards, which, while seeming simple, disguised an underlying complexity and sophistication.

Defining his sound, Pitre said: “It’s from the gulf. Its roots are from the fever swamps of Port Arthur in the Lone Star State where I started honking my horn as a kid, when I wasn’t thinking about pirates.”

A man of few words, he always maintained a kind of cool aloofness, an elusiveness that skirted definitive answers to questions he thought might constrict the full depth and range of free associative responses that the music might be capable of conjuring.

However, Pitre always cited as the source of his interest and relocation from the south to the Fillmore Jazz District “a traveling uncle who told me about the blues and jazz clubs of the Fillmore District in SF back in the day when cats from all over got down.” That interest, and the scene itself, is what led him to make the Fillmore the band’s home base.

Alternating between Sheba and Rasselas — along with other venues in the broader Bay Area jazz circuit — Pitre and Bohemian Knuckleboogie were mainstays that helped anchor the Fillmore’s jazz scene. Pitre spoke both to his commitment to carrying on the historical tradition of jazz in the Fillmore and to the viability and legitimacy of the jazz district as a living cultural phenomenon that nurtures a range of great musical spirits.

“The Sunday Mike passed was one of the most difficult I have experienced in years. He played here on Sundays. He never missed and was always on time,” says Netsanet Alemayehu, who owns the Sheba Piano Lounge. “One day he asked how I was doing and I said, ‘I am really tired.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, just listen to the music, it will make you feel better.’ ”