To many people, Pittsburgh’s Lower Hill District was a 20th-century ghetto. To Chuck Spatafore, who played drums in many of the neighborhood’s 30 night spots, it was paradise.
His audiences included athletes, well-dressed couples on dates and numbers runners, all of them thirsting for a cocktail and swinging live jazz. The innovative composers and musicians who developed their distinctive styles here during the first half of the 20th century include Ray Brown, Billy Strayhorn, Billy Eckstine, Erroll Garner, Earl “Fatha” Hines and Mary Lou Williams. That’s just six of the 15 people featured in a new documentary.
“We Knew What We Had: The Greatest Jazz Story Never Told” recounts vividly, through performance footage and interviews, how and why Pittsburgh became a bubbling cauldron of jazz. The documentary airs at 8 p.m. Feb. 15 on WQED and again at 7 p.m. on Feb. 18. Marty Ashby, executive producer for MCG Jazz, the North Side music venue, produced the film and shared the work load with Jeff Sewald, a producer, writer and director who conducted most of the 60 interviews.
Fittingly, the film begins with Pittsburgh native Stanley Turrentine blowing his tenor saxophone with sensual ease on “A Little Sweetness.”
“That was a piece we commissioned Stanley to write. He wrote it for what became our very first CD, which was called ‘A New Home,’” Mr. Ashby said in a telephone interview.
The seeds of Pittsburgh’s rich jazz culture were planted by two waves of African-Americans. In the early 1800s, Pittsburgh historian Larry Glasco says, blacks worked for white upper-class families in the Hill District. These African-Americans hailed from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, especially Winchester, a town settled by Germans. There, they heard classical music and some learned to play it. Between 1900 and 1920, Pittsburgh had five African-American string orchestras, Mr. Glasco said.
After World War I began in 1914, African-Americans who worked on Alabama and Georgia plantations came here for a better life and to find work in mills, mines or factories. These newcomers played and sang the blues. The blend of classical and blues produced jazz.
In Pittsburgh’s integrated public high schools, especially Schenley and Westinghouse, students learned classical music first, giving them a foundation to improvise and develop complex rhythms and harmonies. At Westinghouse, Carl McVicker set a high standard for his students between the 1920s and ’50s. Besides supervising four ensembles, he started the K-Dets, a stellar jazz group.
At Schenley High School, Ray Brown picked up a string bass when he could not get enough practice time on the piano. Besides being acclaimed as one of the greatest bass players, he succeeded as a nightclub owner and record producer and mentored people such as vocalist and musician Diana Krall and producer Quincy Jones.
Footage of the pioneering Mary Lou Williams playing the piano shows her virtuosity and the strength of her left hand.
“She transcended eras, and she remained modern throughout her career,” Geri Allen, the late pianist and educator, says in the film. “She established this place that women would be able to find a part in this music.”
Ahmad Jamal, born Frederick Russell Jones, started playing the piano at age 3. At age 7, he began formal lessons with Mary Cardwell Dawson, who founded the National Negro Opera Company in 1941. He also studied with Mr. McVicker, who had an impact on singer Dakota Staton, Mr. Strayhorn and Mr. Garner.
“The foundation I got in Pittsburgh was responsible for my growth,” says Mr. Jamal, who changed his name when he converted to Islam in 1950. Mr. Garner was “perhaps my biggest influence.”
“When you heard Erroll Garner playing, you heard a complete orchestra. He was Ravel, he was the Count Basie horn section,” says Monty Alexander, a pianist.
Pittsburgh drummer Kenny Clarke played often with Dizzy Gillespie, the trumpeter and band leader. Until doing this film, Mr. Ashby says, he had no idea how critical Mr. Clarke was in influencing the style of today’s drummers.
The drumsticks were passed to the forceful Art Blakey, leader of the Jazz Messengers, then to Pittsburgh’s Roger Humphries. The newest generation of drummers includes Indiana, Pa., native Joe Saylor, who plays in the band on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show, and Tom Wendt, who is on the faculty of Duquesne University’s music school.
George Benson, a guitarist and vocalist who once lived on Bedford Avenue, brought new audiences to jazz with his pop renditions of “This Masquerade” and “On Broadway.”
In the film, Mr. Benson recalls hearing music while walking down Wylie Avenue. When a club owner asked his mother if her son could perform at his night club, she replied, “He can’t work in a night club. He’s only 7 years old.”
When the club owner offered $40 a night, his mother relented. “So we ended up working at a place called Little Paris on Wylie Avenue,” he recalls.
A longtime record producer, Mr. Ashby sounds as if he is warming up for a follow-up to this documentary.
“The stories we were not able to tell in 56 minutes are monumental,” he says, citing the careers of trumpeter Roy Eldridge, vocalists Dakota Staton and Maxine Sullivan plus Sammy Nestico, who arranged music for the Count Basie Orchestra.
Meanwhile, all 60 interviews have been transcribed and will be posted at www.mcgjazz.org this year.
Marylynne Pitz: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1648 or on Twitter:@mpitzpg.