When most people think about the history of jazz, images of a young Louis Armstrong blowing his cornet through the Storyville streets of New Orleans spring to mind, or maybe they imagine sitting in the Apollo audience being serenaded by Billie Holiday’s melancholy rendition of “Fine and Mellow.” But there’s a city often left out of this conversation. A city that played a major part in building the jazz landscape of America. A city so full of talented musicians that they fell from the sky like fallen stars. While jazz heads worldwide celebrate this country’s exalted homebrew of music, I want to bend your ear to the history and continued legacy of jazz culture in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
As the thoroughfare city for bands traveling from New York to Chicago and Kansas City, Pittsburgh earned a reputation as one of the hottest cities on the jazz circuit. Much like the Tango Belt of New Orleans, and 52nd Street of Manhattan, Pittsburgh’s Hill District brimmed with its own strip of nightclubs, speakeasies, and hopping spots like The Musician Club, The Loendi Club, and the Crawford Grill. This cultural cradle was so beloved for its nightlife and atmosphere charged with jazz that poet Claude McKay christened the intersection of Wylie Avenue and Fullerton Street as The Crossroads of the World.
These crossroads became a breeding ground for talent, producing legends like Duke Ellington’s musical soulmate Billy Strayhorn, pianists Errol Hines and Ahmad Jamal, drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke, horn brothers Stanley and Tommy Turrentine, bandleader and vocalist Billy Eckstine, and the First Lady of Jazz-pianist Mary Lou Williams. Not only did these artists rise to become the jazz giants during the height of the era, the impact and contributions they made to the art form can still be experienced by music lovers today.
“This is a jazz city. Pittsburgh’s jazz legacy is embedded in the culture. People feel that when they attend the festival.”
Times have changed. The tide of popular music has rolled on, and the clubs of yesteryear are gone, so the current jazz scene may not match the sizzle of the city during its heyday. But thanks to musicians, resident aficionados, and institutions like the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the August Wilson African American Cultural Center (AWAACC), Pittsburgh’s jazz scene is not only thriving; it continues to bloom.
The brainchild of Mary Lou Williams, the first Pittsburgh Jazz Festival was held in 1964 at the Civic Area and featured the jazz greats of that period, among them Williams’s own trio, the Thelonious Monk Quartet, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Sarah Vaughan, and Pittsburgh’s Art Blakey.
Fifty-eight years later, William’s vision to showcase musical excellence and celebration has become a passion project for Janis Burley Wilson, President of AWAACC and Artistic Director of the festival. Under Wilson’s guidance, The Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival has grown into an annual weekend event that rivals premier music festivals worldwide.
Last year’s festival came out the pandemic box swinging. With a roster of heavy headliners, including the Ron Carter Quartet, Stanley Clarke Band, Ledisi, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, and Vanisha Gould, to name a few, Wilson says we can expect the same stellar performances later this year on September 15-18. “The Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival has always celebrated different styles of jazz and unity through music. This year is no different; coming out of a global pandemic, we are committed to creating a welcoming, safe atmosphere and presenting music and artists that are unifying in their approach.”
As a native of the city, Wilson was raised on and fell in love with the music she would eventually grow up to promote. “This is a jazz city. Pittsburgh’s jazz legacy is embedded in the culture,” she says. “People feel that when they attend the festival.”
And I’m a witness. When multi-instrumentalist and producer Winston Bell took the stage at last year’s festival, the audience swelled with energy and excitement that lifted them to their feet.
“To be the only Pittsburgh artist on that stage was not only an honor, but to also play with Marcus Miller, just an absolutely legendary person; I was blown away. And the fact that my father played with (him) for a very long time, and now he’s had a second generation of Bells sitting in on the stage with him, I thought there was some really nice irony in that moment. I was on stage nervous but at the same time blown away. It was an incredible opportunity.”
Bell says because Pittsburgh is ripe with opportunities like this to jam with veterans of the craft, it’s the perfect training ground for novice musicians to hone their skills. As one of the city’s young emerging talents who cut his teeth playing at local haunts, he should know. On April 25, he embarks on his journey into the mainstream jazz world when “First Step,” his first single from The Winston Bell Project, debuts on Spotify and Sirius XM Watercolors radio.
“Starting off in a city like Pittsburgh where you have legendary musicians and jazz royalty here… you have multiple places that give you access to great teachers, (their) insight, and real-world experiences like the Con Almas that have opened up on Elm Street and downtown. There are new venues opening in East Liberty, and James Street Speakeasy is coming back…So it’s a growing city of jazz. It’s definitely having a great return to form.”
“Other than New York and Chicago, there are some really important jazz cities in this country, and Pittsburgh is one of them.”
Percussionist and jazz historian Thomas Wendt agrees, “The thing that is special here is that the process of learning this music, and what I mean by that is the younger musicians learning from, the older musicians, is still relatively intact in this city. For instance, tonight, I’ll go over to Con Alma, and they have a jam session there every Tuesday that’s a beautiful mix of all generations. That’s the kind of environment that this music continues with.”
Wendt, who gigs an average of five times a week, says Pittsburgh holds its own when compared to other metropolitan areas. He credits Greer Cabaret Theater, Alphabet City, Backstage Bar, and other jazz haunts as the reason he’s staying put.
“There’s a very strong jazz scene here, which is one of the reasons I’ve stayed. When I travel to other cities, especially smaller, midsize ones, there’s usually some jazz happening, but it’s nothing like it is here. Other than New York and Chicago, there are some really important jazz cities in this country, and Pittsburgh is one of them.”
A percussion professor at Duquesne University and music instructor at the Afro-American Music Institute, he’s optimistic about the future of the genre due, in part, to the increase of interest he sees in up-and-coming artists. “I get excited when I meet a young musician who I can tell is interested in really understanding what came before them. That’s ultimately going to give their playing so much more substance and meaning.”
Wendt’s drive to educate and share with the next generation of musicians is what led to his collaboration with AWAACC to produce The Vinyl Report. This YouTube series pays homage to legendary jazz recordings with a Pittsburgh connection. As host and curator for the series, Wendt invites local jazz heroes, like Dr. Harry Clarke and master guitarist Mark Strickland, on the show to explore the music and their connection to the work.
“Janis (Burley Wilson) and I would always talk about jazz records, and since there’s currently this resurgence of vinyl, (we) thought this was a great way to celebrate jazz recordings in general, the Pittsburgh connection to those recordings, and the fact that younger people are into buying records. The goal is to bring people of all kinds to the music via albums.”