Dwayne Dolphin, Howie Alexander and Sean Jones -- three jazz artists tending the Pittsburgh flame
Sunday, April 05, 2009
By Steve Hallock
The house band at CJ's in the Strip District had just finished off a rousing "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" to whoops from the packed room at a recent Thursday night jam session. Roger Humphries turned over his drum set to a reedy kid named Joey Sailor as the musicians launched Miles Davis' "So What."
Drum master handing off his throne to his student: The ritual of passing the music to the next generation is a common ceremony in Pittsburgh as young players are stepping up to answer the question of who will carry on this city's jazz tradition.
It can be an intimidating inheritance. Pittsburgh's jazz legacy includes not only the legends, ranging alphabetically from Ray Brown and Kenny Clarke to Billy Strayhorn, Stanley Turrentine and Mary Lou Williams, but also a host of modern-day artists that includes Humphries, the Ashbys and Budways, saxophonist Kenny Blake, trombonist Al Dowe and his vocalist Etta Cox, guitarist Joe Negri and keyboardist Gene Ludwig.
A dozen or so young Pittsburgh musicians are responding to that call. They have arrived on city jazz stages in a long process of nurturing by family, friends -- and teachers.
It is a process of tradition that begins in childhood and that is sometimes mystical.
Here are three of them:
* They are each members of the Pittsburgh Jazz Network. Please visit their pages and add them as friends.
DWAYNE DOLPHIN on bass
Coming out of a Hill District home filled with the music of his father's jazz records, Dwayne Dolphin travels the world recording and touring with jazz and funk notables. At numerous Pittsburgh venues, the large, 6-foot-tall bassist wears an intense scowl framed by a Van Dyke beard as he presides over his own piccolo bass band, offering up bluesy, electric funk and hard jazz, or laying down a rumbling acoustic foundation for the city's lead jazz players.
The Gibson Les Paul guitar his older brother brought home one day in 1973, when Dolphin was 10 years old, sparked the musical fire.
"It was shiny, it was absolutely gorgeous," he remembered during a recent interview at a Strip District coffee shop and cigar bar. The next day, his brother made a gift of a $10 used bass guitar to Dolphin.
But it wasn't until two years later, while Dolphin was in his room mourning the death of his steelworker father, that the instrument took hold.
"The bass was in the closet, and where I was sitting on my bed, I could see the bass, but this time the bass was kind of like, you know, you know that story where you see the light shine and the heavens open up, this time it was like calling me, the bass. I went in the closet, picked it up and then it took on a new meaning. It was a piece of wood, a bass guitar, from the time I was 10, but when I turned 12 and I touched it, the bass became my friend."
That friendship took him after high school to Boston, where he was hooked up on the phone by a chum to a trumpeter in New York City.
"The guy on the other end of the phone was Wynton Marsalis," Dolphin recalled. "I didn't know who he was. At the time, he was not famous."
Joining the Marsalis quintet and building the network of jazz and funk musicians before coming home a couple of years later "was the best thing I ever did," he said. But just as important was his schooling at Schenley High from band teacher Ken Cook.
"He told me who to listen to," Dolphin said of his mentor, who introduced him to the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. "His love of jazz, and that enthusiasm, he gave it to me. More important, the one thing I give him more credit for, is he told me the truth. He told me who to listen to. That was more important than anything anyone has ever taught me. He told me who to listen to and why.'"
Cook, now retired, remembers Dolphin as an enthusiastic player with a good ear. He gave his student extra lessons after school -- along with a handful of other students who showed a passion for music.
"I just thought that I had to do something with these students to help them," Cook said. "But I did tell them that here are the people to listen to, and that's just the way I was. I wanted to make sure they know who these musicians were and what they sounded like. That was my path that I wanted to give them."
That path has led Dolphin back home, to stay.
"I'm going to die in Pittsburgh," he said. "There's no reason to leave here, because, what people don't understand is Pittsburgh has probably a more fruitful jazz scene than most cities anywhere."
HOWIE ALEXANDER on piano
Howie Alexander also grew up in a home -- the Blackridge section of Wilkinsburg -- filled with jazz, along with rhythm & blues and funk from the music collection of a father who by day was a bank vice president.
Alexander took up the piano when he was 15; and 19 years later, with performances with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the likes of Stanley Turrentine on his resume, he performs as sideman or lead player at clubs and benefits across the city. But one gig is steady. Every Monday, wearing blue jeans, dreadlocks, glasses and a wide smile, Alexander plays a mix of bluesy chords and feather-light fingerings on his electronic keyboard as he oversees a jam session at the AVA Lounge in East Liberty. Visiting musicians ranging from college students to bebop and modern jazz veterans join Alexander's trio in a variety of standards and free-form improvisations.
"I never know what I'm going to play, the music kind of dictates what I'm going to play," he said between sets recently, explaining that his voice is still emerging but is defined by what has come before -- including one of his jazz heroes, Pittsburgh-born pianist Ahmad Jamal. "As a musician you want to play what influenced you, everything you've listened to goes in, and you use that."
Alexander cited a trio of mentors: James Johnson Jr. of the Afro-American Music Institute in Homewood; guitarist Jimmy Ponder, with whom Alexander had his first professional gig at the age of 17; and Nelson Harrison, who played trombone with the Count Basie Orchestra among a long list of jazz accomplishments.
"From those three I learned everything I need to know about music," Alexander said. "By being around them and hearing them, by them telling me stuff and not telling me stuff, not saying anything."
The 68-year-old Harrison was a friend of Alexander's father from their days in the 1950s at Westinghouse High School, which was legendary for the jazz musicians it produced, and he kept tabs on the young pianist. He recalled bringing Alexander into a group of about 40 kids he put together for a jazz program through the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in the late 1980s. He drilled the teens on the basics of jazz and blues and eventually formed a jazz group that included Alexander, Roby Edwards on sax, James Johnson III on drums, Justin Brown on bass, and his nephew, Hill Jordan, on trombone.
"I introduced them to the audience this way," he said. " 'These are my kids. I started them from scratch, in the tradition. They can't play, but they're going to do their best for you. Their job is to make me eat those words.' Now when I see them play at the AVA, I tell them those are nice-tasting words. They can go anywhere in the world and play."
Alexander said he respects, but is not cowed by, the tradition, and he has no plans to take his keyboards elsewhere. "I'm from Pittsburgh, where would I go? I love being from Pittsburgh.
"The whole 17 years that I've been playing, you have the same old guys, but there are different guys, the same old venues, but there are different venues, and there's still the same love for the music," he said. "One thing I love about Pittsburgh is all the innovators who came from Pittsburgh and the huge shoes you have to fill. To be a Pittsburgh musician, there's something expected of you."
SEAN JONES on trumpet
Sean Jones knew of the Pittsburgh tradition when he would come to the city as a teenager more than a decade ago to listen to Humphries and his band at the late James Street Tavern on the North Side.
"I was learning from the Pittsburgh legacy before I was even here," said the 30-year-old, citing Pittsburgh-born trumpeter Roy Eldridge during a break at his trio's regular Tuesday night gig at the new Little E's jazz club Downtown.
"He was a vital part of jazz improvisation, he's one of the links," said Jones, an assistant professor of jazz studies at Duquesne University and lead trumpeter for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York.
He picked up his first trumpet for his grade school band in Warren, Ohio.
"My sixth-grade band director gave me two Miles Davis records, and those were 'Kind of Blue' and 'Amandla,' " he said, flashing the smile that is frequent during his performances. "I wore that CD out. I remember trying to play like Miles Davis."
Davis' death while Jones was in middle school stirred an inner monologue that cemented the young trumpeter's commitment.
"The day that he passed away, I was sitting there, and it was almost like I could hear his voice speak to me. Man it was the weirdest thing. He was saying, 'Yo man, you gotta keep this going when I'm gone.' I kept hearing it in my head, I said, 'Man, there's tons of people that are doing it now.' He said, 'But you gotta go with the times, as I have, you gotta play music for people, play music for the people.' It was so weird man, it was so strange."
The child of a broken home, Jones took on a trumpet-playing father figure during his growing-up years, a former Basie band member named Dennis Reynolds.
"He exposed me to a pile of different music, but he also taught me about being a man and standing up for something, standing up for what you believe in, like being a good person generally," Jones said. "He was pretty spiritual, he taught me to keep God first."
After earning his master's in jazz studies on a jazz fellowship at Rutgers, Jones moved to Pittsburgh four years ago and has built a regional and national reputation for his screeching bebop licks Ã la Maynard Ferguson that he combines with church bell-clear mellow tones on ballads.
The 65-year-old Humphries remembers fondly the teenager attending his gigs.
"It was very surprising when he first came there to see someone play at his level, his whole mannerism and the respect he had for the music," Humphries said. "He had so much respect for talking about the music, also for me and the other guys. The first time my brothers heard him at James Street, they said, 'Man, I cannot believe him.' He had them coming back on Thursday nights and listening to him. Hitting the high notes and telling the story through his horn. That's his gift. He can express himself so well through the instrument."
Jones said he has long-range plans for himself and Pittsburgh, based on its tradition but taking it in new directions.
"I think I'm able to bring about a certain kind of change," he said. "The people that are here are great, don't get me wrong.
"Right now, I'm trying to use the momentum of my youth and being the new guy in town, to make change happen -- the same change that all the other great guys, Roger Humphries, Dwayne Dolphin, Marty and Jay Ashby, local guys, Nelson Harrison, all those guys made it happen."
Steve Hallock, a former newspaper jazz critic, teaches journalism at Point Park University Hallock (shallock@PointPark.edu). He is the author of "Reporters Who Made History," a history of the United States as seen through the eyes of prominent journalists, scheduled for publication this summer by Praeger Books.
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First published on April 5, 2009 at 12:00 am