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THE STRONG CARD

PITTSBURGH JAZZ

 

From Blakey to Brown, Como to Costa, Eckstine to Eldridge, Galbraith to Garner, Harris to Hines, Horne to Hyman, Jamal to Jefferson, Kelly to Klook; Mancini to Marmarosa, May to Mitchell, Negri to Nestico, Parlan to Ponder, Reed to Ruther, Strayhorn to Sullivan, Turk to Turrentine, Wade to Williams… the forthcoming publication Treasury of Pittsburgh Jazz Connections by Dr. Nelson Harrison and Dr. Ralph Proctor, Jr. will document the legacy of one of the world’s greatest jazz capitals.

 

Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?

 

Some answers  can be gleaned from the postings on the Pittsburgh Jazz Network.

 

For almost 100 years the Pittsburgh region has been a metacenter of jazz originality that is second to no other in the history of jazz.  One of the best kept secrets in jazz folklore, the Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy has heretofore remained mythical.  We have dubbed it “the greatest story never told” since it has not been represented in writing before now in such a way as to be accessible to anyone seeking to know more about it.  When it was happening, little did we know how priceless the memories would become when the times were gone.

 

Today jazz is still king in Pittsburgh, with events, performances and activities happening all the time. The Pittsburgh Jazz Network is dedicated to celebrating and showcasing the places, artists and fans that carry on the legacy of Pittsburgh's jazz heritage.

 

WELCOME!

 

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Duke Ellington is first African-American and the first musician to solo on U.S. circulating coin

    MARY LOU WILLIAMS     

            INTERVIEW

       In Her Own Words

Carl McVicker, Sr. - Westinghouse High School - Teacher to the Stars

Carl McVicker

Westinghouse High String Quartet - L-R: Patricia Prattis, Paul J. Ross, Carl McVicker, Sr., June Gibson, Barbara Jones - 1958
 

Carl McVicker Sr. was the innovative and influential director of the Westinghouse High School music program that produced many renowned jazz and classical musicians. Leading the music program for over 40 years his jazz students included composer/pianist Billy Strayhorn, pianist Errol Garner, pianist Ahmad Jamal, trombonist Grover Mitchell, vocalist Dakota Staton, trumpeter Danny Conn, pianist Frank Cunimondo, guitarist Jerry Byrd, reed players Art Nance and Clarence Oden, and brass player Nelson Harrison.  Westinghouse’s music program also produced talented classical musicians.  Two of McVicker’s students, pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings and violinist Paul Ross, were the first African-American musicians to join the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  Both were hired in the 1965-66 season.  Patricia Prattis Jennings was also the firstAfrican American woman to be awarded a full contract by a major American symphony orchestra.  Birdie Nichols, who became a music teacher at Westinghouse High School, is also a prominent gospel musician.  Highly respected by his students, McVicker’s students called him "Mac”.  He was recognized for his encouraging students of all backgrounds and races to try all instruments.

"Mr. McVicker instilled self-respect in those of us who were his students, because he respected us regardless of our background," - Ahmad Jamal

Westinghouse Swing Band 1943 with Ahmad Jamal

Carl McVicker Sr. was born in 1904 in Pittsburgh. A trumpet player, he was a music graduate of the Carnegie Institute.  In 1927 he was hired as an instrumental music teacher at Westinghouse High School where he became the director of bands and orchestras.  Westinghouse at that time had a student body of four hundred, of which 20 percent were African American. It offered an integrated environment.  McVicker with the support of the superintendent of schools instituted a radical new music program that included jazz.  It drove two teachers leave the school in protest.  He started a swing band as an alternative to the concert orchestra and marching band.

"Jazz was a dirty word then.  The people in the educational system thought it was dangerous to encourage jazz bands, but it was a way of interesting kids”  Carl McVicker Sr.- Pittsburgh Magazine  1979.

At one point the roster of the Westinghouse High School Kadets swing band directed by McVicker included the future jazz artists Ahmad Jamal on piano, trombonist Grover Mitchell (who went on to direct the Count Basie Orchestra), vocalists Dakota Staton and Adam Wade, saxophonist "Buzz" Renn and his brother, trombonist Jack Renn, trumpeters Danny Conn, Pete Henderson, and Albert Aarons (who was a staff musician at MGM)  They played music ranging from "String of Pearls" to Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul.

McVicker also established the Westinghouse High School "Orchestra Club".  Twenty-five of the best players picked from the larger high school orchestra performed classical music concerts at Pittsburgh hotels and society functions at the homes of wealthy Pittsburghers.  Billy Strayhorn, who wanted to be a classical pianist, was the first African American member of the “Orchestra Club”. In 1934 Strayhorn performed Edvard Greig’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, opus 16. with the Westinghouse Orchestra. 

McVicker wanted students in his program who were hard working and serious about music. Carl and music composition teacher Jane Patton Alexander insisted that the Westinghouse students learn the fundamentals. They taught their students music theory and orchestral practice.  Their students were able to blend and manipulate music in a variety of key signatures. 

“He was quite innovative.  He had four ensembles, the Beginners Orchestra, the Junior Orchestra and the Senior Orchestra, and then he started the K-Dets(?).  It was unique, because this was the all-American Classical/Jazz band, and it was quite unusual for it to be in a high school at that time on such an organized basis.  He started the K-Dets(?) maybe around 1946, which is quite early on.  Now, of course, we have Berklee and all these institutions of higher learning that incorporate this music in their curriculum to say the least.  But I think it was very innovative, very unique on his part to start a Jazz clinical society in 1946”-Ahmad Jamal WKCR Radio Interview 1995

The music students of Westinghouse were stars at school and in Pittsburgh.  Billy Strayhorn wrote the music, lyrics, and skits for a Cole Porter-style musical called Fantastic Rhythm for Westinghouse High School that was performed in theaters across Western Pennsylvania.  Erroll Garner brought more attention to the school than the football team. Everywhere he played he drew huge crowds.

In addition to his work at Westinghouse Hiigh School, Carl McVicker Sr. taught brass instruments as a member of the faculty at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute. Carl McVicker died in 1994.  Trumpeter Danny Conn, a former student, played a moving blues version of the Westinghouse fight song at McVicker's funeral.  Students of Carl McVicker are honored in the Westinghouse High School Wall of Fame.

Carl McVicker’s son Carl McVicker Jr. is a bassist who performed on the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for 30 years.  He also was a member of the Johnny Costa Trio

Westinghouse High School in Homewood

Westinghouse High School Wall of Fame

Al Aarons-- performed with Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones and Frank Sinatra

Gerald 'Jerry' Byrd -- performed with Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff

Danny Conn -trumpet

Frank Cunimondo -- composer/keyboard

Erroll Garner -- jazz musician

Linton Garner -- performed with Billy Eckstine and Erroll Garner

Nelson Harrison, Ph.D., composer -- performed with Count Basie

Ahmad Jamal-- jazz pianist musician

Claude Jay-- gospel recording artist

"The Larells" -- all-male band, recorded "Everybody Knew"

Grover Mitchell -- conductor with Count Basie orchestra

Art Nance-- performed with Count Basie

Birdie Nichols – music educator and "Glorious Rebirth" Gospel Group

Peggy Pierce-Freeman – organist and piano teacher

Pat Prattis-Jennings -- principal keyboardist of the Pittsburgh Symphony

Paul Ross-- Pittsburgh Symphony violinist

Wyatt Ruther -- performed with Count Basie, Erroll Garner and Lena Horne

Dakota Staton -- jazz musician, performed on "Late, Late Show"

Billy Strayhorn -- composed the "A Train" worked with Duke Ellington

Adam Wade-- singer, actor and first black to host a game show

Mary Lou Williams -- piano prodigy, arranger composer for Big Bands

Westinghouse High School Wall of Fame

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Comment by Dr. Nelson Harrison on February 17, 2013 at 9:11pm

I heard an NPR program recently on WESA that was focused on Billy Strayhorn.  Sean Jones was the in-studio guest and it was a call-in show.  A call was received from Carl McVicker's grandson who narrated a revised and erroneous version of the Westinghouse High School music history which I am obligated to correct.  He started by incorrectly stating that when his grandfather began teaching in 1927 he discovered that the kids in Wilkinsburg didn't relate to classical music well so he approached the Superintendent to seek permission to teach jazz instead since his grandfather was a jazz musician in the 1920s.  This is ludicrous on several levels.  Firstly, Westinghouse High School is in Homewood NOT Wilkinsburg.  Carl McVicker, Sr. lived in Wilkinsburg but he taught in Homewood.  Secondly, Carl McVicker Sr. was not a jazz musician at all and all of his private trumpet students (dozens of whom I have know personally going back to his early years as a teacher) studied the Arban classical trumpet method.  Thirdly, there seemed to be an implication in the Grandson's statement that Westinghouse had a primarily black student population (who "didn't take to classical music very well").  The fact is that in 1927 Westinghouse students were close to 95% white not 80% as stated above.  My mother graduated in 1930 when the black students were not permitted to attend the prom or school picnic. My aunt Sophia Nelson was the first black valedictorian in the history of the school in 1934 when she was only 15 years old. My aunt Fannetta was destined to be the second black valedictorian at 15 years of age in 1936 when the racist principal Dr. Kisler extorted Mr. McVicker and her other teachers to lower her grades.  Mr. McVicker changed her A in music to a B and she was denied the valedictorianship. I know personally from Mr. McVickers own words to me on many occasions how much he tearfully regretted that decision and my aunt never fully got over it until her death in 1988. The cold case was revived by an alumnus of Westinghouse who is an attorney and after much investigation and publicity, the Pittsburgh Board of Education posthumously awarded Fannetta the valedictorianship of the Class of 1936 in 2010.

I was the Principal trombone chair and my brother Richard was the Principal trumpet chair of the 1956 Westinghouse State Championship Orchestra.  The school was still 60% white students at that time and the Principal Dr. Paul Felton still discriminated negatively against the black high achievers in a similar fashion as Dr. Kisler.  The school did not become a majority black school until the late 70s.

The grandson also made another gross misconception when he stated that Ahmad Jamal was just a natural talent who couldn't read music.  This is such an egregious misconception that it cannot be allowed to go unchallenged.  The grandson probably meant Erroll Garner who during his time as a student at Westinghouse didn't read music while he played tuba in the marching band, but certainly didn't need to read music either being capable of playing anything he heard perfectly the first time. Erroll told me personally in a TV interview in 1970 that he attended Julliard for almost a year in his 30s and I later learned from one of his classmates then that he blew everyone away.

The grandson seemed to be trying to give his grandfather credit for teaching jazz to all of the jazz greats who attended or graduated from Westinghouse and this is simply the total opposite of the truth. All of us who played jazz to any significant degree who attended Westinghouse or any of the other city high schools for that matter, learned jazz in the community or the home.  We just happened to live in the same community in a time when the schools were community schools. 

Please feel free to comment on this issue or ask questions.  The PJN is dedicated to accurate information based on diligent research or first hand knowledge.

Comment by Dr. Nelson Harrison on November 26, 2012 at 12:00am

It would seem from that list of famous musicians that there was a jazz oriented music program at Westinghouse but there was not.  There was no such thing as music education classes during Mr. McVickers era.  We learned our music from private teachers outside of school of which he was one.  He taught classical trumpet primarily using the Arban system. He gave me my first formal trombone lessons using the Rubank system, but soon had to send me to Matty Shiner, the great trombonist who taught Sammy Nestico, Bill Tole, Harold Betters, Al Dowe and many many others. I studied the Arban , Mantia, and Ferrara systems and Arthur Pryor solos.  Again these were classical lessons. The competition was tough and you couldn't get into the A Orchestra or A Band without having had private lessons.

My Aunt Fannetta Nelson was a classical piano prodigy who shared the piano bench at Westinghouse with Billy Strayhorn.  She used to sit for Ahmad's lessons at the Dawson School of Music when Madame Dawson was out of town, as she was the senior piano student at the Dawson school and was the accompanist for the National Negro Opera Company which was founded there in 1941.  When Madame Dawson moved to Washington, DC in the early 50s, Fannetta started her own Piano School in her home which turned out many fine pianists.  She didn't play jazz at all.

Another private teacher named Evalina Palmieri taught piano to Michael "Dodo" Marmarosa, Bobby Cardillo and Frank Cunimondo who each became great jazz pianists.  The lessons she taught were classical, however, as she herself did not play jazz.

In 1946 Mr. McVicker started a swing band known as the K-Dets in honor of the returning soldiers from WWII.  This was an extra-curricular club that met after school.  We enjoyed performing the big band charts but we taught ourselves how to solo.  I was first introduced to jazz instruction in a neighborhood band called the Beethoven Bebops, mentored by Warren Watson, then a law student at Duquesne.  A 1940 graduate of Westinghouse H.S. he had completed the Arban trumpet studies under Mr. McVicker in private lessons.  When in the Navy, he formed a Jazz Big Band in San Diego in 1946 and when our parents solicited his coaching services, he brought his professional arrangements and music stands to rehearse us every Friday.  That is where I began to learn jazz, not in school. 

Comment by Roberta Jean Windle on November 16, 2012 at 8:57pm

Wow, how those walls must talk! The perseverance and total dedication of these musicians

have allowed the the Jazz world to become what it is today and I thank each of them.  

Mr. McVicker rocks in the Jazz world, indeed. Thank you for sharing these important facts of Pgh Jazz history.

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