There’s a rich jazz history in the Hill

By Samantha Stahl

‘ ‘ ‘ Gentle streams of steam cascaded from the factories populating the Pittsburgh skyline…. ‘ ‘ ‘ Gentle streams of steam cascaded from the factories populating the Pittsburgh skyline. Inside, nearly half the country’s steel was in production. The year was 1920. America was celebrating World War I victory, enjoying pre-Depression prosperity with the rise of jazz culture. Living among Pittsburgh’s smoke and steel were some of the nation’s most influential jazz musicians, gaining momentum to leave their mark on the music world. ‘ ‘ ‘ Outside of Pennsylvania, the jazz industry was growing rapidly on the East Coast. The Theater Owners Bookers Association formed ‘The Circuit,’ a circle of cities that hosted white-owned clubs but hired only black artists. The lineup went from Buffalo, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., to Baltimore to Chicago. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘Pittsburgh was a convenient stop-over,’ said Nathan Davis, an acclaimed jazz musician and Pitt’s director of jazz studies. ‘You have to remember: They didn’t travel by jet.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ As the nation’s greats made their way to gigs in Chicago, they stayed in Pittsburgh for days at a time. On their days off they hung with locals, teaching them about music and giving them the opportunity to play. ‘ ‘ ‘ Pittsburgh was a musical powerhouse, pumping out artists at a rate that rivaled the big cities. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘For a city its size, Pittsburgh produced more jazz innovators than any other. It wasn’t because it was in the drinking water ‘mdash; it was the people passing through,’ said Davis. ‘They had a nickname for the city: ‘Little Harlem.’ There was an emphasis on black culture. They had clubs all over the place, primarily in the Hill District. A lot of really great musicians came out of there.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ Davis explained that among the most significant clubs was the Crawford Grill. ‘Almost anybody in jazz anywhere, even big names, came to the Crawford Grill.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ In the first wave of Pittsburgh elbow-rubbers was Roy Eldridge, a trumpet player known by his friends as ‘Little Jazz,’ a nickname earned for his ease in playing any instrument. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘His sound and style became synonymous with jazz,’ said Davis. ‘His style influenced Dizzy Gillespie ‘mdash; Dizzy got his style by listening to the way Roy would play the trumpet.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ Eldridge wasn’t alone in influencing the greats. Billy Strayhorn, born in Ohio but raised in Homewood, was asked to work with Duke Ellington shortly after graduating high school. Davis explained that ‘he was what Duke Ellington called his ‘right arm.’ He thought just like Duke Ellington and wrote music just like Duke Ellington. You could hardly tell the difference. He was almost like a musical clone.’ ‘Duke would say, ‘If I’m writing a new composition and I get stuck, I call Billy and he’ll finish it and it’ll be just how I would write it.’ That’s how close they were.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ Another major innovator was Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. Born in Duquesne, he began transforming jazz piano in the 1930s. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘He played single lines like a trumpet player because he listened to Louis Armstrong. He made the right hand the solo hand and the left hand the accompaniment. Before that, everything was two hands. If you look at the history of jazz, this style is what everyone played after him.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ Men weren’t the only ones tearing up the town. As women were making their way up in society, earning the right to vote with the 19th Amendment in 1920, they were also becoming an integral part of the jazz scene. Many great ladies of jazz came out of Pittsburgh, though most went on to other cities before creating a strong association with the area. Singer Lena Horne, for example, grew up in the Hill District before heading to New York City to work as a dancer. John M. Brewer Jr. explained in his book ‘Pittsburgh Jazz’ that Billy Strayhorn had a major influence on her vocal methods. ‘ ‘ ‘ Maxine Sullivan was born in Homestead but made her vocal claim to fame in New York City after being discovered by pianist Claude Thornhill. She went on to inspire some of the best in the business, including Ella Fitzgerald. ‘ ‘ ‘ Mary Lou Williams, whose piano is now on loan at the Heinz History Center thanks to Davis, was ‘one of the most innovative and celebrated jazz pianists in history.’ She mastered the instrument at an early age and quickly drew attention. Davis said she was a ‘hell of a composer and arranger. She was hired by Duke Ellington, and he sure didn’t need to hire nobody, so she must’ve been good.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ The people coming and going to and from Pittsburgh have since become an integral part of jazz history. ‘ ‘ ‘ ‘These people are in the history books for what they do. They are the Bachs and the Beethovens of their period,’ said Davis. ‘ ‘ ‘ As the 1930s came to a close, the jazz movement was just getting started. A new trend would soon begin ‘mdash; bebop ‘mdash; altering the sound and meaning of jazz music forever.

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