Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Dr. Nelson E. Harrison, a local musician, says the stage of the Crawford Grill is his favorite in all the world. Harrison and six partners considered buying the Grill and putting a studio in the basement that could webcast concerts upstairs.
At the corner of Wylie Avenue and Elmore Street in the Hill District, the Crawford Grill stands like an old horn player, looking for a buck, a break, a purpose.
It saw 60 years of Southern-fried chicken, bourbon-buying big shots and some of the best jazz in the world. A historical plaque out front lists the names Art Blakey, Mary Lou Williams and John Coltrane, just a few of the hundreds of musicians and thousands of people -- black and white -- who left their mark upon its long bar, cozy booths and tiny stage.
Crawford Grill regular Charles "Buddy" Shelton reminisces about the nightclub in its heyday to the PG's Kevin Kirkland:
That was back in the heyday of the Hill, where the jazz flowed as freely as the drinks at the Crawford Grill. Now it sits closed and for sale, its price recently raised to $300,000 to reflect new development nearby and a proposed new hockey arena three-quarters of a mile away.
So far, however, no one has taken a chance on this buff-brick building in a tough part of town. And no one -- not even owner William "Buzz" Robinson -- knows what to do with Crawford Grill No. 2, a companion to the original Crawford Grill that closed in 1952 after a fire.
"It would be inspirational to open the place again as a club. Its history is imbedded in the Hill. Some local people have the interest but they don't have the finances to do it," Mr. Robinson said by phone from New York City, where he lives.
As a child, Mr. Robinson remembers sitting in a booth at Crawford Grill No. 1 on Centre Avenue. It was one of dozens of nightclubs that helped make the Hill District the "crossroads of the world" in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, according to Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay. Gus Greenlee opened No. 1 in the early 1930s, about the time he began turning the Pittsburgh Crawfords from a sandlot baseball team into one of the best ever in the Negro Leagues.
Whether you're talking about No. 1 or 2, the Grill has always been about numbers. Mr. Greenlee didn't need to make money on his nightclub or his baseball team as long as his numbers racket paid off. Three lucky numbers a week -- and thousands of not-so-lucky combinations -- ensured that the Grill survived the destruction of the Lower Hill in the 1950s, when the Civic Arena was built.
After No. 1 was razed, Joe Robinson, Buzz Robinson's father and a partner of Mr. Greenlee's, moved the numbers business to No. 2. When he and his associates weren't tallying proceeds in the front office, he was holding court at the near end of the bar, surrounded by some of the Hill District's professional and business elite.
While in his 20s, the younger Robinson began booking jazz acts -- both local and national. It started with bassist Charles Mingus and Mr. Blakey, a drummer, followed later by Dizzy Gillespie and local prodigies Billy Eckstine and George Benson, all performing on a low 11-by-11-foot stage that divides a building 120 feet long but only 20 feet wide.
In the evenings, their music drew a racially mixed audience, including Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Rooneys and Kaufmanns. During the day, the crowd was a changing who's who of black Pittsburgh, with regulars ranging from landscape contractors and plumbers to August Wilson and fellow writers Nick Flourney and Chawley Williams.
The death of Martin Luther King in 1968 and the riots that followed were the beginning of the end for the Grill and the Hill. Whites were increasingly afraid to come in and the black professional class moved out amid growing crime. Crawford Grill No. 2 closed in 2002 and Crawford Grill No. 3 -- a venture that didn't involve Mr. Robinson -- failed in Station Square after nearly three years.
Depending on to whom you're talking, the Crawford Grill today is a business opportunity, crumbling relic or "spirit house." Joseph K. Williams, an attorney who is handling the Grill's sale, has rehabbed seven buildings around Pittsburgh and gets frustrated that no one with vision wants to buy the 100-year-old brick building with four two-bedroom apartments on its two top floors. "You could put glass on the side facing Downtown and charge $1,000 a month rent," he said.
Across Wylie Avenue, Walter Smith is turning the two top floors of his three-story building into loft apartments. Next month,, developer McCormack Baron Salazar and the Pittsburgh Housing Authority will begin moving about 80 seniors from the obsolete Lou Mason high-rise into The Legacy, a brick mid-rise complex that stretches 400 feet down Wylie toward Downtown.Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
A "for sale" sign hangs outside the legendary jazz club in the Hill District.
Click photo for larger image.
Etched in stone over the windows facing the Grill are the names of a dozen Pittsburghers who performed there or were somehow connected with the local jazz scene.
When seniors move in next month, they'll find jazz-related artwork in the buildings and four trumpets imbedded in the fireplace mantel in the community room, said project manager Mary Kellers. Jazz concerts are proposed for the outdoor patio.
"The name of the project is The Legacy for the neighborhood's jazz legacy," said Daniel Rothschild of Rothschild Doyno Architects. "There are generations who don't know the history of the Hill District."
Mr. Williams says that reopening the Grill as a restaurant would probably require spending at least $60,000 to upgrade the kitchen, a small 1950s- or '60s-vintage space that still has its sinks, ovens, pans and dishes. The neighborhood desperately needs a decent restaurant, he said. "You can't buy a bowl of soup on the Hill."
Dave Papale, manager and director of the five-nights-a-week jazz series at Gullifty's restaurant in Squirrel Hill, believes Mr. Williams is being optimistic.
First, installing a commercial kitchen like the one at Gullifty's would cost $500,000 or more, he said, and even a smaller kitchen would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Costs aside, investors may be hesitant to put much money into a building in an area that, despite continuing development, is still viewed as a neighborhood plagued by drugs and blight.
Moreover, Mr. Papale noted that running a successful jazz club requires good food, good service and, of course, a good mix of local and national acts -- and even then, there are no guarantees. The recent closing of Dowe's on Ninth Downtown shows that live jazz can be a tough sell in Pittsburgh, said the Point Breeze native, who moved back from New York after working and running several clubs there.
Gullifty's and the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild are the only ones bringing nationally known jazz acts to Pittsburgh. Local and regional musicians are booked occasionally at Rhythm House in Bridgeville, Tusca in South Side, C.J.'s in the Strip and during the summer, at Katz Plaza Downtown.
Gullifty's draws 100 to 150 people on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays with local musicians such as trumpeter Sean Jones and saxophonist Kenny Blake. But the crowds are sometimes smaller on Friday and Saturday nights, when a $15 cover charge helps pay for national names like Rachel Z and Paul Wertico, Mr. Papale said.
The Grill confronts other issues, too. An appraiser and others familiar with the building say it would need much more than a new kitchen to be viable. All wiring and plumbing would need to be replaced and the apartments would probably have to be gutted and rebuilt.
"It's one of many historical properties in Pittsburgh. There's been some redevelopment in that area, but there's no other retail around it. Renovating that building would be costly. Is it more valuable for redevelopment or to keep the building?" said Brian P. Kelly, a principal with the Downtown appraisal firm Kelly-Rielly-Nell-Barna and Associates.
Mr. Kelly noted that the Grill no longer has a liquor license, which would add to its value. Mr. Robinson sold it several years ago, his attorney said.
Mr. Robinson, who according to the Allegheny County Web site owes more than $1,200 in back taxes on the building and parking lot, does not own the vacant lot between them. But it is also for sale, said Mr. Williams, who claimed that the back taxes had been paid.
Some were hopeful that Don Barden, who has a license to open a casino on the North Side next year, might be interested in the Grill as part of a $350 million redevelopment package for the Hill District.
But Barden spokesman Bob Oltmanns said it's much too soon to discuss specific properties there. The Grill's location is 11 blocks away from Mellon Arena and the proposed new arena. "Our objective is that our development should reach like fingers into the rest of the Hill and spur additional development," Mr. Oltmanns said.
Many believe local buyers are the Grill's best hope.
Dr. Nelson E. Harrison, 66, a psychologist and trombone player who has played there hundreds of times, was part of a group that proposed last year to buy the building and put a studio in the basement that could air live jazz performances on the Internet. The plan died, but Dr. Harrison continues to work on creating a "virtual" Crawford Grill on the Web at crawford.peopleaggregator.net.
He has heard that some potential buyers have proposed knocking out the wall opposite the stage and widening the Grill so it could hold more than the 100 to 200 people it once held on its busiest nights.
"Do that and you might as well knock it all down. It wouldn't be the Grill anymore," he said.
Dr. Harrison, who first played on the Grill's stage at age 15, calls it a "spirit house" -- an African term for a sacred place that may have nothing to do with religion.
"You walk in and feel the spirits. Our mentors are still there. Other musicians say 'We got to be careful about what we play there. They're listening.' "
Pittsburgh is notorious for tearing down such spirit houses as the Syria Mosque, he said, but losing the Grill would be even worse.
"It is the soul of black Pittsburgh."Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Joseph K. Williams, an attorney handling the Crawford Grill's sale, frequented the nightclub when it was a vibrant venue for jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson and John Coltrane.
Click photo for larger image.