4.1 GATEWAY: HAROLD BETTERS, WALT HARPER, AND OTHERS
The prosperity of Pittsburgh’s jazz scene continued through the early and mid 1960s. This prosperity was augmented by the beginnings of a more visible jazz recording industry, spearheaded almost single-handedly by the Gateway label. Jazz on Gateway was actually a relatively small portion of the label’s output, as the company issued records in many genres, most notably Eastern European folk music through an extended series of recordings of the Duquesne University Tamburitzans. The label seems to have been operated largely under the auspices of Robert W. Schachner, whose name is ubiquitous on the label’s releases as a producer, engineer, and writer of liner notes. Gateway maintained recording studios on the second floor of a building, above a record shop, in downtown Pittsburgh.
Aside from a Harold Betters Christmas album, Gateway’s jazz output was released entirely through its 7000 series. While some catalog numbers in the series remain unidentified by this researcher and possible unused, Gateway LPs 7001 through 7021 consist of thirteen recordings of Pittsburgh jazz musicians (plus a handful of LPs by non-Pittsburgh musicians such as Lionel Hampton and the Hollywood Jazz Quintet). Gateway’s jazz series is dominated by the music of trombonist Harold Betters, with eight of the thirteen Pittsburgh recordings, including
Robert W. Schachner, program notes for Harold Betters, Live at the Encore, Gateway GLP 7001.
Joe Kennedy III, interview by Maurice Levy, tape recording, January 31, 1996, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Oral History of Music in Pittsburgh.
50 Charles Austin, interview by Maurice Levy. one Best Of collection, appearing under his name. Of the remaining five, there are three recordings by Walt Harper and one apiece by pianist Charles Bell and saxophonist Jon Walton.
Born on March 21, 1928 in Connellsville, PA, Harold Betters studied music education at Ithaca College for two years, followed by one year at Brooklyn, NY’s Conservatory of Music.48 After a stint in the army, Betters lived briefly in New York City before returning to Western Pennsylvania. Judging from the large quantity of commercially-issued recordings under his name and also from the accounts of his peers, Betters must be considered as one of the most commercially successful of all jazz musicians making their living in Pittsburgh. Aside from his nine Gateway LPs, he released three LPs on the Reprise label, one or two of which were probably Pittsburgh sessions, in addition to two more LPs issued on labels ostensibly under the proprietorship of the artist himself.
The inaugural issue in the Gateway jazz series captures Betters live at the Encore, a club in the Shadyside neighborhood of Pittsburgh whose management, including Will Shiner and Bobby Davis, was committed to a high standard of live music.49 Betters worked the Encore regularly for years, becoming a veritable local institution there. Also for several years from the mid-1960s, Betters led a jazz band which provided half-time entertainment at the home games of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team.50 Amazingly, Betters is still an active performer in the Pittsburgh area as of this writing.
Betters’ commercial success is understandable considering the consistent straight-forwardness of his music. Firmly rooted in the music of the 1950s movement of hard bop (or
51 Charles Austin, interview by Maurice Levy.
52 Joe Harris, interview by Maurice Levy, tape recording, March 22, 1994, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Oral History of Music in Pittsburgh.
soul-jazz as it also frequently called), Betters sticks to a repertoire consisting of jazz standards, show tunes, and current pop hits, usually performed in the classic hard bop style by a quartet consisting of trombone, piano, bass, and drums. The relative simplicity of Betters’ style of jazz, with the lack of chordal extensions and alterations in the playing of both Betters and his piano players, probably went a long way in establishing the music’s commercial appeal. The straightforward, driving rhythms, he favored are often quite infectious, with hard-driving swing, shuffle and Latin feels in abundance, and Betters’ obviously considerable skill as a trombonist is manifested in his strong and forceful tone and fluidity of phrasing. Adding more to the commercial appeal of Betters’ music are the frequent references to other well-known tunes in his improvisations as well as the trombonist’s occasional vocal turns. Without any negative connotation, Charles Austin in an interview notes that the commercial success of Harold Betters and his brother, singer/drummer Jerry, were due to their having a relatively saleable product.51
Walt Harper’s Gateway albums record the early mature style of this pianist/bandleader who, along with Harold Betters, must also be considered Pittsburgh’s most commercially successful local jazz musician. In an interview, drummer Joe Harris identifies Betters and Harper as the city’s two leading entertainers throughout the 1970s, a position obviously solidified by these two musicians beginning in the 1960s.52 The personnel employed by Harper on the Gateway sides is similar to that which appeared on the 1952 Eddie Jefferson recording, with brother Nate invariably occupying the tenor sax chair. The Plays the College Jazz Beat LP, recorded at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland, has Bobby Boswell sharing bass
Carlos E. Peña
B.A., University of Pittsburgh, 1998