The history of jazz music in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH — Everyone knows their names - Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. All are great legends who performed often in Pittsburgh because of the city’s rich history with jazz. It’s a history that started nearly 100 years ago.

If you drive down Wylie Avenue in the Hill District and look closely, you’ll see the names inscribed on the walls - Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstein and Ahmad Jamal. And if you listen closely, you may still hear the music.

“Pittsburgh has never really celebrated the music in the way it’s had an international impact,” said musician and historian Dr. Nelson Harrison.

Harrison played on all of those stages with legends like Lena Horne and Tony Bennett.

“I’ve always played with the top bands in town for the last 65 years,” Harrison told Channel 11′s Aaron Martin. “I never thought I would meet Kenny Clark, but it just so happens I had a chance to play with him in 1970, and we’ve gotten to be good friends.”

Harrison estimated he has more than 100,000 pictures and memorabilia detailing Pittsburgh’s long history with jazz. For Harrison and so many others, that history began at a young age with music coming out of every door in the city’s Black communities. It’s a history Harrison is working to keep alive and spread to the next generation.

William Marshall is joining him. He’s the organizer behind the Juneteenth Jazz Celebration at Point State Park. It will have a day devoted to jazz.

“You can’t start a music festival or music introduction without coming to the Hill District,” Marshall said. “The Hill District is the mecca of black music in the city of Pittsburgh.”

Marshall showed Martin where Pittsburgh’s relationship with jazz began, at the legendary Pythian Temple.

“I think we are standing on musical sacred ground, because this is one of the buildings that kicked off the jazz experience in the city of Pittsburgh,” Marshall said.

The Pythian played a key role in the city’s music history before closing its doors in the 1970′s. But arguably no spot was more influential than the Crawford Grille #2. The Heinz History Center recreated the Grille’s façade in an exhibit honoring Pittsburgh jazz.

“At the Crawford Grille were greats like Duke Ellington,” said director of marketing and communications at the Heinz History Center, Brady Smith. “National acts would come in and play. But also, Pittsburgh born jazz musicians made their mark.”

In the 1950′s and 1960′s, Pittsburgh had dozens of jazz clubs drawing some of the biggest names in the business. But one by one, they shut down.

Marshall said Savoy in the Strip District is one of only a handful of locations in the city that still has a jazz night.

That is just one of the reasons Harrison is sharing the story of jazz in Pittsburgh with anyone who will listen. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the 80-year-old was performing three times a week near his home in East Liberty.

“When I’m on a bandstand or I’m the leader, I say please take your camera out and take my picture. I’m not hiding. I’m not trying to disappear from history,” Harrison said.  “You don’t want the music to die with you.  You want to plant it in fertile ground.”