Pittsburgh’s Incredible Jazz History and the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival

New York, Chicago and New Orleans are the meccas of jazz, but there is one city that has long been waiting for its jazz recognition.

When most people think of the history of jazz, images of a young Louis Armstrong blowing his cornet on the streets of Storyville in New Orleans come to mind, or perhaps imagine- they sat in the Apollo audience serenaded by Billie Holiday’s soulful rendition of “Fine and Mellow.” But there is one city often left out of this conversation. A city that has played a major role in the construction of the American jazz landscape. A city so full of talented musicians that they fell from the sky like fallen stars. As jazz leaders around the world celebrate this country’s exalted house music, I want to listen to the history and ongoing legacy of jazz culture in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

As a stopover city for bands traveling from New York to Chicago and Kansas City, Pittsburgh has earned a reputation as one of the hottest cities on the jazz circuit. Just like the Tango Belt of New Orleans, and 52nd Street of Manhattan, the Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh is packed with nightclubs, speakeasy and lively venues like the Musician Club, Loendi Club and Crawford Grill. This cultural hotbed was so beloved for its nightlife and jazz-laden atmosphere that poet Claude McKay dubbed the intersection of Wylie Avenue and Fullerton Street the Crossroads of the World.

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These crossroads became a breeding ground for talent, producing legends like the musical soul mate of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, pianists Errol Hines and Ahmad Jamal, drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke, horn brothers Stanley and Tommy Turrentine, the bandleader and singer Billy Eckstine, and the First Lady. by jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams. Not only did these artists become the giants of jazz at the height of the era, but the impact and contributions they made to the art form can still be felt by music lovers today.

“It’s a city of jazz. Pittsburgh’s jazz heritage is steeped in culture. People feel it when they attend the festival.

The times have changed. The tide of popular music has continued and the clubs of yesteryear have disappeared, so today’s jazz scene may not match the city’s sizzle in 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 isn’t just thriving; it continues to bloom.

Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival

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, including Williams’ own trio, Thelonious Monk Quartet, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Sarah Vaughan and Pittsburgh’s Art Blakey.

Fifty-eight years later, William’s vision of showcasing 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 leadership, the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival has grown into an annual weekend event that rivals the best music festivals around the world.

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Last year’s festival came out the pandemic box swinging. With a roster of 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 to the same stellar performances later this year from September 15-18. . “The Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival has always celebrated different jazz styles and unity through music. This year is no different; emerging from a global pandemic, we are committed to creating a welcoming and safe atmosphere and to presenting unifying music and artists in their approach.

As a native of the city, Wilson grew up and fell in love with the music she would eventually promote. “It’s a city of jazz. Pittsburgh’s jazz heritage is embedded in the culture,” she says. “People feel that when they attend the festival.”

And I am 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.

“Being the only artist from Pittsburgh on that stage was not only an honor, but also performing with Marcus Miller, just an absolutely legendary person; I was dazzled. And the fact that my dad played with (him) for a very long time, and now that he has a second generation of Bells sitting on stage with him, I thought there was a very nice irony in that moment- the. I was on stage nervous but at the same time blown away. It was an incredible opportunity. »

Bell says that because Pittsburgh is full of opportunities like this to jam with veterans of the craft, it’s the perfect training ground for beginning musicians to hone their skills. As one of the city’s up-and-coming young talents who cut his teeth playing local hotspots, he should know that. On April 25, he embarked on his journey into the world of mainstream jazz when “First Step”, his first single from The Winston Bell Projectdebuts on Spotify and Sirius XM Watercolors radio.

Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival

“Starting 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 who are are open on Elm Street and downtown. New venues are opening in East Liberty, and James Street Speakeasy is coming back… So it’s a booming jazz town. It’s definitely a great comeback.

“Apart from New York and Chicago, there are some very important jazz cities in this country, and Pittsburgh is one of them.”

Percussionist and jazz historian Thomas Wendt agrees: “What’s special here is that the process of learning this music, and what I mean by that is that young musicians learn older musicians, is still relatively intact in this city. For example, tonight I’m going to Con Alma, and they have a jam session there every Tuesday, it’s a nice mix of all generations. This is the kind of environment in which this music continues.

Wendt, who performs concerts an average of five times a week, says Pittsburgh is holding up well compared to other metro areas. He credits the Greer Cabaret Theatre, Alphabet City, Backstage Bar and other jazz venues for keeping him there.

“There’s a very strong jazz scene here, that’s one of the reasons I stayed. When I travel to other cities, especially small and medium ones, there is usually jazz, but it’s not like here. Besides New York and Chicago, there are very important jazz cities in this country, and Pittsburgh is one of them.

A a percussion professor at Duquesne University and professor of music at the Afro-American Music Institute, he is optimistic about the genre’s future due, in part, to the growing interest he sees in emerging artists. . “I’m excited when I meet a young musician who I can tell is interested in really understanding what came before. It’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 Pittsburgh-related jazz recordings. As host and curator of the series, Wendt invites local jazz heroes, like Dr. Harry Clarke and master guitarist Mark Strickland, to the show to explore the music and their connection to the work.

“Janis (Burley Wilson) and I were always talking about jazz records, and since there’s this resurgence in vinyl right now, (we) thought it was a great way to celebrate jazz recordings in general, the connection of Pittsburgh to these recordings, and the fact that young people are buying records. The goal is to bring people of all kinds to music through albums.

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