A June 23 ceremony to commemorate the contributions of local African-American jazz musicians will take on added poignancy following the death this weekend of local jazz trumpet great Charles "Chuck" Austin.
On that day, a historical marker will be dedicated in the Hill District near where the offices of the former African American Musicians Union Local 471 stood. It will be the culmination of two years of work by the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh, of which Mr. Austin was a founding member.
"That has been something so dear to Daddy for all these years," said Lynn Austin Scott of Ben Avon, Mr. Austin's daughter.
While Mr. Austin will not be present for the June festivities, organizers say he will be remembered as a valued friend and respected musician who in 2008 was honored by the Manchester Craftsman's Guild as a Pittsburgh Jazz Legend.
"On stage, you could tell there was joy that he was playing music," said Marty Ashby, executive producer of MCG Jazz. "He was always very happy that he was on the bandstand, making music and sharing his heart and passion."
"He was just a warm, generous person and a good jazz player," said Joe Negri, who was part of the same Jazz Legends group. And, through Mr. Austin's union work, Mr. Negri added, "He did everything he could to make musicians' lives better."
Mr. Austin, who grew up in Ben Avon and most recently lived in the Hill District, died of cancer Saturday at the Aspinwall Veterans Administration hospice. He was 84.
This past weekend his friends and colleagues remembered him as the consummate sideman, a trumpet player who could play lead chair or blend in with his bandmates with equal skill and grace, and who excelled at helping younger players find their way.
"He was forever youthful, forever energetic, and he got along with everybody," said Nelson Harrison, a longtime friend who first met Mr. Austin nearly 50 years ago when they played in the Joe Westry Orchestra.
Even when AAMU Local 471 merged with the local white musicians union, and bookings for black musicians quickly dried up, Mr. Harrison said people still sought out Mr. Austin. "He showed up and did the job."
His professional highlights include an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show with Lloyd Price, who had such hits as "Personality" and "Stagger Lee." He also played Count Basie's last concert at the Savoy Ballroom on Centre Avenue in the Hill District in the early 1970s.
For years, he was part of the Stanley Theater orchestra, backing up such visiting acts as Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, James Brown and The Temptations, said Mr. Harrison. He also played for a Diana Ross appearance at the Civic Arena and a performance by Liza Minnelli at Heinz Hall, family members said.
Mr. Austin toured with Paul Williams and, more recently, led the trumpet section in the Roger Humphries Big Band. His longest association, though, was his 30-plus years with Jack Purcell Music Service.
In a 2004 profile in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mr. Austin expressed one professional regret -- turning down an invitation to tour with Ray Charles in the early 1960s because of family considerations. But family came first, his daughter said, noting that he left a tour with Lloyd Price when her younger brother had health problems shortly after birth. "He was always supportive and his love was unconditional," she said.
To supplement his earnings as a musician, Mr. Austin ran his own carpet cleaning company for several years and took night janitorial jobs so he could have weekends free to play music.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Austin is survived by son Charles Edward Austin II of the South Side, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Earlier this year, Mr. Austin was interviewed as part of the Smithsonian Jazz and MCG Jazz Oral History Project, a portion of which can be viewed at youtube.com by searching for "Chuck Austin Final."
First Published May 29, 2012 12:41 am