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, Parlanto 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.
In short, she's "on" -- but there's no sense of stretch, because this is clearly her steady state of being. She knows her mind and speaks it.
"I can build things," she remarks in passing. "I have power tools."
Considering her well-toned performer's body and self-confident manner, she probably doesn't need to plug in -- she carries her own power pack inside. Reed seems a woman who can accomplish whatever she sets her mind to. But can she pull off what has brought her home to Pittsburgh?
Reed is the Hill District native and Schenley High grad who left to get classical musical training at Manhattan's Juilliard School, then burst upon a very different world as the Tony-nominated lead in "Bubbling Brown Sugar" (1976). Many an adventure later, she's doubly home, back in Pittsburgh but also back in "Bubbling Brown Sugar," opening tonight for three weeks at Pitt's Kuntu Repertory Theatre.
Why would a star revisit a past triumph in a local company mixing students and semipros?
"I wanted to give back," she says. "I didn't want to say no, especially with young people just coming along."
Reed backs that sentiment up with a pragmatism that gives it weight.
"It's a precarious position for me," she admits. "You know, honey, when I came here in 'Bubbling' before, it was a hot property and I was hot in it." That was 1977, when she joined the road company for a few weeks so she could be with "Bubbling Brown Sugar" at Heinz Hall.
She says when Vernell Lillie, Kuntu's founder, asked her to revisit "Bubbling" for Pittsburgh and the next generation, she said, "I'm coming, but I will not drop any ounce of professionalism." One condition she set was the engagement of director-choreographer Keith Tyrone Williams, who also performed in the original Broadway show.
They found that "auditions were not easy," since they needed performers who could sing, dance and act.
"We hired some talented people, but Keith and I are teaching as we go along -- but that's OK, that's OK, because someone had to teach me. I love the cast. I love that they're like sponges. There's a potpourri of talent at different levels."
Still, "I have never, ever in my lifetime, done a show of this magnitude in 2 1/2 weeks! I've been a stickler."
This interview was two weeks back, just as Reed was feeling overwhelmed with the work ahead. Now the show, with its score drawing on the work of two dozen musical greats, is ready to go.
Performing with Reed will be Christina Maria Acosta, Kevin Brown, T.C. Brown, Linda Haston, Daniel Joyner, Jasonta Roberts, Chuck Timbers, Jacen Wilkerson and Carolyn Byrd, many of them familiar names to Pittsburgh theatergoers. Seven more make up the supporting ensemble.
In them, Reed can see something of her past. If she can ever find the time, that story will make one heck of an autobiography.
She was raised on Wandless Street on the Hill ("there's not a home left," she says) and her family later moved to Kedron Street in Homewood. That's where her mother, Lucille, 92, still lives, and that's the name Reed has given her own production company.
She credits her father, Clyde Reed, a gospel singer, with her artistic side, but her mother taught her such life arts as sewing. Her parents heard her making "melodious sounds" at age 3 and sent her for vocal lessons at 8 -- very classical, all art songs and arias. "By 13, I could sing in Italian and French and had started German."
Senior year at Schenley, she auditioned for Juilliard, where she went on a scholarship. "My mother took me there, and when she walked down the hall, I cried for three days."
Reed eventually got seduced away from her projected career as a dramatic soprano by a singing hostess gig at a Harlem night club. "I was brought up in a Baptist church, so the feeling was there," she says.
Then came Broadway. Among her mentors she counts tap great Honi Coles and Bobby Schiffman, who owned the Apollo Theater in the '60s. They taught her, she says, "If you cannot be on time, be early."
Next came seven years in Paris, a story involving Pierre Cardin, Princess Grace, "Elle," an acclaimed role as Josephine Baker in the movie "L'Africain" with Catherine Deneuve, and lots more -- all waiting for that autobiography.
More recently, Reed won another Tony nomination for "The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club (1992), played Queenie in "Show Boat" in Toronto for Hal Prince and was back on Broadway as Audra McDonald's mother in "Marie Christine."
She's also worked in nonmusical theater and would love to do an August Wilson play, but she knows she has to campaign to get work outside her image.
A big project right now is "Three Mo' Divas," which follows the formula of the "Three Mo' Tenors," in which classical-trained singers also do R&B, blues and jazz. Launched last year in San Diego, it's readying for a tour.
"I had to go back to the woodshed," says Reed, "because, baby, these are real classical divas. They helped to pull me up, and I helped them to get down."
Reed's last public visit to Pittsburgh was in October 2003, when she sang for her mother's birthday at East Liberty's Vintage Senior Citizen Center. Before that, she performed here twice with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, playing Lena Horne in "Indigo in Motion" (1999, 2002).
"Not only a look-alike for the songstress," said PG critic Jane Vranish, Reed was "a star in her own right, seriously relaying Horne's surprisingly turbulent history ... [with] effortless song stylings."
As Reed told the PG's Nate Guidry, "I've always admired Lena. She helped to break the color barrier and was always willing to help young performers."
With Kuntu's "Bubbling Brown Sugar," Reed is doing that herself.Post-Gazette drama editor Christopher Rawson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1666. First Published January 27, 2005 12:00 am