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The Pittsburgh Jazz Festival

Nick Catalano By

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It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Pittsburgh in the annals of jazz history. Just a few of the legendary names—Ahmad Jamal, Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine, Billy Strayhorn, George Benson, Ray Brown, Stanley Turrentine—are sufficient to raise the proverbial jazz fan eyebrows. I actually performed there in the halcyon days of bebop and so it was the memory of a gig long ago in the Hill District that drew me back to the scene.

Thursday June 18

A festival opening night concert at the Kelly-Strayhorn theater (after The MGM film star Gene Kelly and composer Billy Strayhorn) starring Sean Jones and his quartet launched matters. Interesting deconstructions of standards by arranger/pianist Orrin Evans were the order of the day with "How High" (from "How High the Moon") a featured selection. An original composition by Jones "We'll Meet Under the Stars" and his performance of Theo Charlier's classical trumpet study #2 highlighted the set. After the concert I wandered over to a jam session at the James St. Gastropub and Speakeasy led by Pittsburgh drummer Roger Humphries. The club features afternoon sessions where patrons can play their own vinyl sides while dining—a hip idea I'd love to see in Gotham rooms.

Friday, June 19

Producer/ historian Yvonne McBride presented "Crossroads"—an invaluable film tracing the the history of the city's Hill District jazz clubs of yore—Crawford Grill, The Hurricane, The Midway—where many of the aforementioned Pittsburgh jazz luminaries got started. Old-timers trumpeter Dr. Nelson Harrison and 92 year old pianist George "Duke" Spaulding provided memorable live music performances. The latter's delivery of "Misty" dedicated "to my old friend Errol Garner" moved a wet-eyed audience. The film was a triumph featuring anecdotal interviewees relating seminal moments in the Hill District's uncanny musical history. That evening the scene shifted to the downtown business district which was transformed into an outdoor festival with portable stages erected every block or so along Penn Avenue. Jazz fans could wander from stage to stage as groups played to audiences free of charge all evening long. DJ Nate da Phat Barber caught my attention paying Latin and standard jazz selections with equipment long thought to be exclusively utilized for commercial, rap, metal or turntable music. Further along Penn Avenue, I wandered into several new upscale restaurant/bars each showcasing a local jazz group and paused to catch bassist Sam Harris playing with Benny Banack's group at the Backstage Bar. The atmosphere along Penn Avenue echoed that of Bourbon Street with the sounds of bebop replacing those of Dixieland.

Saturday, June 20

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