ALL THAT JAZZ
Network keeps Pittsburgh’s music legacy alive
By ERIC SLAGLE Daily News Staff Writer
Now that April is here, the question is what to do for Jazz Appreciation Month.
You could travel to the Smithsonian Institution, (which designated the month-long observance), in Washington, D.C., or any city that comes to mind when thinking of jazz, such as New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, L.A. or New York.
That would be sort of silly, however, if you are reading this article within the delivery area of this newspaper, as the Pittsburgh region has produced more jazz notables than you can shake a drum stick at.
Billy Strayhorn, George Benson, Art Blakey, to name but a few.
But jazz shouldn’t be considered an artifact of the city’s past. The Steel City and surrounding ’burgs still have plenty of swing in them.
The Pittsburgh Jazz Network and Forum, scheduled for Sunday from 8 to 11 p.m. at the New Hazlett Theater in Allegheny Square, offers one avenue for exploring Pittsburgh’s present and past jazz scene.
The monthly forum is both an open jam session for local talent where they can show their chops, and an open discussion where audience members can learn more about the music they are hearing and share their own thoughts about jazz with the musicians.
Admission to the forum is free, though the audience is encouraged to tip the musicians.
“I have never found any place that has better musicians than Pittsburgh,” said Dr. Nelson Harrison, who plays trombone at the events and is founder of the Pittsburgh Jazz Network, an online social network that serves the local jazz community.
The network’s approximately 1,100 members are jazz musicians, fans and people who support the art form in one capacity or another.
Harrison, in the course of playing over the past half century, has worked with virtually every major jazz musician to come out of Pittsburgh. He also was a member of the Count Basie Orchestra and has played with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans.
When he was playing music as a teenager at Westinghouse High School in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, Harrison, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, said jazz was widely celebrated in the local and popular culture and musicians were looked up to the way athletes are revered today. Opportunities to develop as a musician were available in and out of school, but Harrison said much of his development occurred on the street and in clubs around the city and jokes, “I got my Ph.D. in music at the Crawford Grill.” Harrison contends the jazz market share has been eroded over the years by pop music and sports, thanks mostly to the support those forms of entertainment receive from radio and other traditional media outlets.
He encourages musicians to develop their computer skills and utilize the power of the Internet to promote themselves.
A weekly schedule of events is available to anyone who visits the jazz network at https://jazzburgher.ning.com/ .
“We don’t have to go through third parties anymore,” said Harrison, referring to agents and other promoters who he claims rarely have the best interests of the musicians at heart.
“The forum is designed to address these issues and bring jazz back,” Harrison said.
Breaking down the walls that usually separates the audience from the performers is one of the ways Harrison hopes the forums make jazz more accessible again.
“We explain what we’re doing (musically) to the audience and we tell a jazz story between every song,” Harrison said.
Audience members also get the chance to tell their own jazz stories or express how they feel about the music being performed.
Swing, bebop, even funk and R&B, Harrison said the band is open to playing lots of different styles of music at the shows.
Regular performers also include Howie Alexander on keyboard, Dr. Kenan Foley on drums and vocalist Marva Josie of Clairton.
Josie also has an impressive list of musical credits including performing in “Porgy and Bess” in New York City Center and on tour, and cutting a number of albums including one with the late piano legend Earl “Fatha” Hines, who was born in Duquesne. She said her father told her that she was humming when they brought her home from the hospital as an infant and that she’s been singing ever since.
Josie said “everybody gets a turn to share bits and pieces” of their jazz past at the forums.
The story she shares might include memories of singing in church at First AME in Clairton, seeing a jazz group perform at the Hollywood Club along State Street where her mother ran the kitchen, or auditioning for Hines at the Village Vanguard in New York City.
Or she could talk about her current musical gigs in addition to the forums that include singing at Epiphany Catholic Church on Centre Avenue in the Uptown part of Pittsburgh, the occasional doo-wop concert and shows with McKeesport guitarist Valentino Vazquez. There’s a lot to tell and Josie said she one day hopes to present all her stories together in a book about her life.
Till then, one of the best places to hear her stories — and the stories of the region’s many great jazz artists — is at the forum.
In the event you can’t make that show, the Smithsonian lists a number of other events that are being held in connection with jazz month.
The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust will present a series of “Vocal-ease” free concerts featuring Javon Rushton Group on Tuesday, Etta Cox on April 15, Kenia on April 21 and Michele Benson & Friends on April 28 at the Backstage Bar. All shows begin at 5 p.m.
Other shows in the “Vocal-ease” series at the Cabaret Theater include Carolyn Perteete at 8 p.m. on Tuesday for $10, jazz singer and trumpeter Andrea Capozoli at 8 p.m. on April 14 for $10, trumpeter Sean Jones and his band at 8 p.m. on April 21 for $20, and jazz legend Jon Hendricks on April 28 at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. for $30 to $35.
For additional information about these shows, visit www.pgharts.org or cal412456-6666.
And for an expanded listing of jazz events, don’t forget to check out The Pittsburgh Jazz Network online.