While the riverboats travelling up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers between 1916 and 1970 brought many people to Pittsburgh to work in the booming steel industry, it also brought a wave of musicians who created Pittsburgh’s lasting jazz scene.
Jazz in Pittsburgh continues to flourish and sustain years of traditions, unlike many other cities that have seen this culture fizzle out with time. And if it weren’t for the Great Migration, when millions of African Americans moved out of the south, musicians such as Billy Eckstine, Ahmad Jamal and Ray Brown, would not have risen to success.
“There’s just this incredible lineage of players who came out of here, and I think that still has trickled down to the scene there is today,” Pitt assistant professor of music Michael Heller said.
The Hill District was one of the premier places for African-American art in the country, with a wide array of well-known places where jazz was appreciated and performed, according to Heller.
“All of this came together and created this very vibrant entertainment scene in the Hill District,” Heller said.
According to Benjamin Barson, a doctoral candidate in jazz studies at Pitt, the modern-day jazz scene in Pittsburgh can be viewed from two different angles.
Barson said two contradictory things are happening simultaneously within the city. On the one hand, there’s an overall renewed interest in jazz music. On the other, venues such as James Street Gastropub and Speakeasy — catering specifically to jazz — are closing down as a result of ongoing noise complaints from neighbors.
“There’s a crisis in cities for these types of spaces,” Barson said, “and without these spaces, that [renewed interest] will be unsustainable.”
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, which has overseen many of Pittsburgh’s historic cultural transformations, can attest to Barson’s statement.
“In the past, there were more jazz clubs, jazz performances, artists, etc. than we see now,” the Trust said in a statement in November.
Despite the loss of James Street and many other prolific venues, the interest in jazz music within the community has still survived throughout the decades.
Jeff “Tain” Watts, a multi Grammy Award-winning jazz drummer, grew up immersed in the Pittsburgh jazz scene. He attended Duquesne University for two years as a classical percussion major, followed by enrollment at the Berklee School of Music in 1979. Throughout his career, Watts has recorded and performed with musicians such as Michael Brecker, Kenny Kirkland and Alice Coltrane.
“[Jazz] seems like it was a constant in Pittsburgh,” Watts said. “During my college years it just felt like a normal, healthy scene …There were always opportunities to see live music for free — like in the summertime there would be jazz in the parks.”
Watts said when he was in college there weren’t many places to pursue a career in jazz. But since then, Watts noticed that jazz education in Pittsburgh has grown with more institutions offering jazz programs.
Heller said, over the last several years, there has been a major boost at Pitt in both the general interest and appreciation of jazz, and the increasing number of jazz activities. Just a few years ago, the University’s music department hired three new jazz faculty members — Heller being one — after years of only having one faculty member.
“I think the University has really embraced jazz as a part of what we do here in the music department and in the University more broadly,” Heller said. “And that helps — a great deal — in terms of the campus life … it’s just something that the department and the University really values.”
Heller also mentioned that faculty members, graduate students and undergraduates in the jazz department have been taking new initiatives toward planning performances in different locations and venues.
“The scene is mourning the loss of James Street — but something else will present itself,” said Watts. “Venues change, but it feels like there’s just a lot happening educationally. The Jazz Seminar at Pitt is recognized worldwide.”
Heller noticed that within the University and the city, students are not the only ones involved with jazz. There is a strong connection within the community as well from Pitt Jazz alumni and other musicians who emerged from the city. A handful of people who were part of Pittsburgh’s jazz community for decades can be found at the Annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert every year.
Music is continuously going in and out of fashion, Watts said, so there is always the possible threat of jazz dying. Yet the Trust has been working to keep Pittsburgh’s jazz tradition and rich history alive by developing the Pittsburgh JazzLive series of programing for the last 8 years.
“There’s a strong handful of people from the community that have been involved in the jazz scene here for decades,” Heller said. “There’s a really nice intergenerational, intercultural feel to the scene here.”