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Pittsburgh Jazz: A Brief History

Steve Rowland By

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This article was first published at the Explore PA History website.

At first glance, Pittsburgh might not seem the most likely place to produce great jazz musicians. Situated on the western edge of the state, "Smoketown" was a gritty industrial city, better known for being the center of the nation's steel industry, than for its popular music or culture. Like Philadelphia, its industries attracted many African Americans from the south, men and women who were looking for decent jobs and a better way of life.

In the 1920s, while Louis Armstrong was carrying jazz from New Orleans to Chicago, and Duke Ellington moved his Washingtonians from the nation's capital to New York, Pittsburgh was developing its own rising jazz stars. First and foremost was Earl Hines, a pianist and bandleader who would have a tremendous influence on jazz for decades. Hines groomed singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine who later formed the band that influenced the great trumpeter Miles Davis' decision to become a musician. In the night clubs and gambling dens of Pittsburgh's African-American entertainment districts, a young Mary Lou Williams got her start playing popular tunes for the "sports" and later became one of the greatest pianists in all of jazz history.

Pittsburgh's distance from the major East Coast markets, in certain ways, limited the opportunities for its musicians. But in many ways it also helped local players develop their own jazz scene, and a regional sound that they carried to Cincinnati, and other midwestern cities. Pittsburgh was on the way to Chicago, but far enough away that bands traveling through the city tended to stay for a few days. This gave locals like Art Blakey, Ray Brown and Ahmad Jamal the opportunity to hang out with their heroes, pick up tips, join in the late-night jam sessions at the after-hours clubs, and occasionally even get a chance to sit in during a downtown concert.

By the 1930s local musicians had developed a Pittsburgh "sound" that combined a strong, straight-ahead urban swing feeling that they merged with a deep blues, carried north by the black men and women drawn to Pittsburgh during the Great Migration. The sound was also defined by very strong drumming; drumming that Art Blakey and Kenny Clarke would take to national and international audiences.

Pittsburgh also had a strong black middle class that encouraged the arts, especially music. In 1926, many of them began to send their children to Mary Cardwell Dawson's music school. Cardwell Dawson, a former high school teacher, founded the National Negro Opera Company, the first black opera company in the United States, in 1941. There she trained Bobby McFerrin Sr., the first African-American hired as a permanent member of the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York.

The black middle class, however, did not fully embrace jazz, which they associated with sin and crime. Religious people called it the "devil's music." But many of the youths trained in Pittsburgh's black churches and music schools saw the great artistry possible in this emerging art form, and the possibilities for work. By the 1930s dozens of nightclubs in Pittsburgh's Hill District supported a vibrant jazz scene. After playing the white theaters and downtown clubs, jazz musicians from around the country would head down to one of the dozens of clubs in the Hill to cut loose and play late into the night, and often into the early morning hours. There was Crawford Grill, the Ellis Hotel, the Webster Grill, the Blue Note, the Ritz, the Bamboola, Stanley's, the American Legion's Carney Post and the Iron City Elks Club. When those closed, black and white musicians eager for a jam headed to the Musicians Club, operated by the American Federation of Musicians Local 471, the black musicians' local.

The jams at the Musicians Club also attracted movie stars and other visitors eager to hear some good music. As Pittsburgh jazz musician Nelson Harrison remembered, "That's where the action was... whatever you were here for, you found a way to get there rather than go to your hotel room and get some sleep—you didn't want to miss that action!" In Pittsburgh's after-hours clubs the national stars knew they were in some stiff competition, for word was out that, as saxophonist Hill Jordan recalled, in Pittsburgh "a guy might jump off a garbage truck and play you off the stage."

Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other major bandleaders often came to Pittsburgh to fill a vacancy in their bands. Indeed, it was Crawford Grill owner Gus Greenlee who arranged the introduction of Duke Ellington to Pittsburgh teenager Billy Strayhorn. After joining the Ellington band, Strayhorn would become one of the great jazz composers and arrangers. Great musicians seemed to flow from the Iron City.

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