Pittsburgh’s best kept secret? All that jazz.

The Steel City quietly cements its place in music history.

Story John Shannon

We all know the great legends of the Pittsburgh sports teams and the legendary culinary contribution of Primanti Bros putting French fries on sandwiches, but many people may not be aware that the jazz legacy and heritage of Pittsburgh rivals any other city in the world.

Did you know that Pittsburgh–born pianist Mary Lou Williams was one of the first to pave the way for women instrumentalists in jazz? Or that Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s right hand man in composing, was also from Pittsburgh? How about that Pittsburgh-born Kenny Clarke took the drums from being an instrument strictly for keeping time to an instrument of wildly expressionistic purpose, paving the way for other drummers such as Pittsburgh’s Art Blakey and eventually Elvin Jones, who then deeply influenced rock ’n’ roll drummers such as Keith Moon and John Bonham? There are many more stories of luminaries from Pittsburgh who made such an important contribution to America’s classical music.

First, though, you have to understand what jazz music is. One way to understand jazz is as the confluence of African rhythmic sensibilities and European harmonic sensibilities on American soil, which is what makes it one of this country’s great exports.

In Pittsburgh, because of the city’s hills and limited transportation back in the day, schools were unable to enforce segregation like other cities were. Therefore, young black children were studying music with white European school teachers, learning European harmony way ahead of the curve, before others of the same age had the chance.

Back then, rivers were basically the highways, and Pittsburgh was more directly connected to New Orleans (the number-one jazz city historically) by River Boat culture. The musicians who played aboard the boats frequently stopped off and shared their music culture.

Also, because of the steel mill boom, the economy was strong and everybody had work. This led to many popular live music clubs, like the Hurricane and Crawford Grill in areas such as the Hill District and East Liberty, all hosting musicians playing popular music of the day.

There are more Steel City legends to celebrate. Pittsburgh Singer Billy Eckstine redefined jazz, singing through his rhythm and lyricism and in 1944 started one of the most important big bands of all time featuring future jazz luminaries Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sarah Vaughan. Pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, born in Pittsburgh, is regarded to be one of a small number of pianists whose playing shaped the history of jazz.

Two other pianists who many would agree belong on that short list as well are also Pittsburgh natives, Earl Hines and Ahmad Jamal. You can pretty much name an instrument, and there is a jazz musician from Pittsburgh who contributed greatly to its development within the jazz genre. Saxophone? Stanley Turrentine. Upright bass? Ray Brown. Trumpet? Tommy Turrentine. Guitar? George Benson. Trombone? Slide Hampton, and the list goes on.

The beautiful thing is that the jazz scene is still alive and well in Pittsburgh today, with world-class players, avid jazz fans, and a growing honor for the city’s jazz legacy. Pittsburgh is still known as a place that holds musicians who “swing hard” and play with deep soul. A friend told me about meeting world-famous jazz drummer Louis Hayes in New York City. My friend mentioned to Hayes that he was from Pittsburgh, and the drummer responded with one word: “Soulsville.”

One of the few remaining jazz drummers from the golden age of jazz is the 75-year-old Pittsburgh native Roger Humphries, who plays every Thursday at Con Alma in Shadyside. To hear Humphries play is to get a real glimpse and feeling of that deep soul and swing that Pittsburgh has contributed to the music.

There are also so many important jazz families in Pittsburgh whose third generation musicians carry the torch today, continuing to explore this incredibly important music in a way that is somehow so naturally Pittsburgh.

Maybe it’s something in the water or in the valley air. Whatever the reason, it’s a part of Pittsburgh’s identity and should not be forgotten, no matter how time rolls along like the lazy rivers that made this town. Some people say it takes a certain marriage of intellect and soul to not only play jazz music but to listen to it. This connects us back to that intersection of African rhythms and European harmony that makes this music so unique to American history and its continuing development. As Pittsburghers, we should be proud of and celebrate this great heritage.

The Anchor of Our Jazz Community

The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG) is a school and musical preservation group rooted in the common vision born from founder Bill Strickland’s personal experience that, “Through direct involvement in the making of art and through exposure to the masters who teach and perform it, our lives will be enriched, even transformed.” As an extension, MCG Jazz’s mission is to preserve, present, and promote jazz, which they’ve been doing in a unique format with some of the greatest international names in the genre for more than 30 years.

In its private music hall near downtown Pittsburgh, MCG Jazz hosts performances that the guild says “strengthen the longtime Pittsburgh jazz community and contribute to the overall cultural and artistic diversity of the region.” Its live recordings reach a global audience. The guild’s educational programs allow students to attend sessions at a reduced cost, make artists available for master classes, provide internship opportunities.

Jazz greats including Joe Williams, Billy Taylor, Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Turrentine, and Ray Brown have helped create more than 300 CDs in the MCG Jazz Archives, representing the past, present, and future of jazz music. The guild says the performance series—one of the oldest in the nation—is an anchor of Pittsburgh cultural and community life. Artists frequently return to create unique recordings on the MCG Jazz label, generously donating proceeds back to the guild in support of future programming.

Two years ago, the guild produced an incredible documentary entitled We Knew What He Had: The Greatest Jazz Story Never Told that explores the social conditions and historical events that came together to make Pittsburgh one of the leading contributors to the legacy of jazz music in the world. This one-hour program is packed with interesting interviews, historical photographs, and more than 20 live performance clips of the Jazz Masters, including George Benson, Ahmad Jamal, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Eckstine, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, and more—all Pittsburghers. The film was produced for a general audience and captures the spirit of a distinctly American art form, the character of a regional locale, and the soul of a hardy and determined people. Check your local listings and mcgjazz.org for programming.

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