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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.

 

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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

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

George Hornsby

This post is a rebuttal of sorts. As I write, I've got my copy of Bill Russell's American Music by Mark Hazeldine open to page 100. This page represents the major source of information in print anywhere about Pittsburgh pianist George Hornsby. And I don't like what it says.

William Russell's American Music label has long fascinated me. Russell started the label in 1944 to issue the recordings of New Orleans musicians he was making at the time. Some of the best recorded work by Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Kid Shots Madison, and Wooden Joe Nicholas was issued on American Music. Russell issued 40 78 RPM records and 13 10" LPs before letting the label go dormant in the early 1950s. Some 20 years or so later, Russell began licensing American Music material to the Storyville label in Denmark and the Japanese Dan label, but in the intervening years, American Music recordings became legendary - not only for their musical quality, but because they were so scarce. Many collectors in those years first heard acetate dubs of the American Music 78s and albums before they ever saw the the actual records. The label is now owned by George Buck's Jazzology group, and most of the issuable music Russell recorded is available on CD.

As I said, most of the music Russell recorded and issued was by traditional New Orleans musicians, but he did venture into related areas. He recorded the St. Louis ragtime pianist Charlie Thompson and the Mobile Strugglers, a black string band from Alabama that played blues and country ragtime. And in February or March, 1947, he took a gospel pianist he found in Pittsburgh, George Hornsby, into Phifer Recording Productions in that city and recorded ten selections, eventually releasing four of them on 78s.

The two George Hornsby 78s represent some of the very few American Music recordings that have not been reissued - not on American Music, not on Storyville or Dan, not even by any enterprising bootleggers anywhere in the world. So of course, I kept my eyes open for them. I found a copy of American Music 521, "Bye and Bye" backed with "Jesus Gave Me a Little Light," about a year and a half ago. And a month ago I finally tracked down American Music 522, "I Know It Was the Blood" and "My Soul Loves Jesus."

George Hornsby is an elusive figure. According to Russell's biographical notes, he was born in Alabama in 1912, and in the 1930's had his own jazz band in Pittsburgh, the Fess Hornsby Orchestra. His name sometimes comes up in biographical discussions of Kenny Clarke - Clarke, a Pittsburgh native, played drums in Horsby's band. Russell indicates that Hornsby turned exclusively to religious music in 1939, and had a weekly radio show, "Modern Hymnology," in Pittsburgh.

Why haven't Hornsby's recordings been reissued? Well, according to Hazeldine's book on the American Music label, Russell wasn't happy with the results of the recording session, although I guess he was initially satisfied enough to issue four of the sides. On page 100, we find this passage:

This was the least successful of all the American Music sessions and Bill Russell was always reluctant to discuss it. Having listened to all of the [Hornsby] masters I can confirm that the playing is of a poor standard and there are no plans to issue any of the above tracks in the AMCD series.

Well, pardon my language, but this is bullshit. I haven't heard all ten recordings (plus alternate takes), as Hazeldine has, but the issued 78s are the work of an accomplished and excellent musician. There is nothing "of a poor standard" about these records.

I feel that Hazeldine has adopted Russell's values in decrying these recordings. William Russell was conservative in his musical tastes - he didn't care for later jazz developments, or even for the saxophone, which he felt had no place in jazz. I suppose that at some point he realized that George Hornsby wasn't a "primitive" gospel pianist, but a knowledgeable, modern (for the time) musician. Hornsby had formidable technical abilites, and his approach to the piano had more in common with Earl Hines than with Cow Cow Davenport or Jimmy Yancey. This was not to Russell's liking, apparently.

It's a shame that these excellent records have never been reissued, and probably won't be. So that interested listeners can hear them and make up their own minds, I've posted mp3's of the two issued George Hornsby 78s here. I invoked the name of Earl Hines in the last paragraph, and these recordings may remind some listeners of what Hines might have sounded like if he had turned to gospel music.

I don't know what happened to George Hornsby after his American Music session, or when he died, as he presumably has. But I'm unwilling to let the negative opinion expressed in the one readily available reference book mentioning him go unchallenged. I dig your music, Fess Hornsby!

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Comment by Dr. Nelson Harrison on March 11, 2012 at 5:15am

KENNY CLARKE re: George Hornsby

Kenneth Spearman Clarke was born on Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh's Hill District on January 9, 1914, to Charles Spearman and Martha Grace Scott. Martha was a pianist, and taught her boy how to tickle the ivories.

But when Clarke was only six and a half years old, his mother died, and his father left the family. He and his older brother Chuck were sent to the Coleman Industrial Home for Abandoned Children to be raised.

At Coleman, Clarke's interest in music grew, and he learned to play the drum, trombone and vibraphone as well as music theory and composition. He first started playing snare drums with the school marching band at the age of twelve.

Around age seventeen, he began to work professionally in Pittsburgh with bands led by Leroy Bradley and George Hornsby. Hornsby's band was taken over by Pittsburgh natives Roy Eldridge and his brother Joe and became the Eldridge Brothers' Rhythm Team.

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