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.
THE FIRST NATIONAL NEGRO OPERA COMPANY ABANDONED SINCE 1962: THE LEGACY OF MARY CARDWELL DAWSON
The National Negro Opera Company (NNOC) was established by Mary Cardwell Dawson inPittsburgh, Pennsylvaniain 1941, and would operate until 1962. Though the NNOC was founded in 1941, Dawson had taken her first big leap into the world of music in the mid-1920s.
Dawson was born in 1894 in Madison, North Carolina, and grew to love music. She aimed to make it her life, and attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, graduating in 1925. She was the only African-American in her class. She continued her musical studies at the Chicago Musical College. During these times, discrimination was still quite common, and Dawson had faced heavy backlash against her dreams to have a career as an opera singer. This led to her desire to become an advocate for black musicians, standing up against racial barriers of the time period. She would use the NNOC as a sort of training ground for black musicians and singers.
Mary Cardwell relocated to Pittsburgh in 1927, and married Walter Dawson. The couple took ownership of a commercial property, and operated two businesses out of it. Walter was an electrician, and his company, the Dawson Electrical Company, operated on the ground floor, while Mary occupied the second floor with the Cardwell Dawson School of Music. This school remained open until 1941. She was also responsible for establishing the nationally recognized Cardwell Dawson Choir, known for their performance at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, New York. This outstanding promotion and management of young African-American artists had led to Dawson serving as president of the National Organization of Negro Musicians.
Between 1940 and 1941, Dawson took ownership of the house on Apple Street, opening it as a space where rising black talent could practice and hone their skills. In 1941 the singers participating in rehearsals at the house were organized into the National Negro Opera Company. Before being purchased by Cardwell, the home was originally built as a private residence in 1908, later changing hands in 1930 when purchased by William A. “Woogie” Harris (brother of the famous photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris.)
The NNOC made their first official appearance at Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque in October 1941. The singers performed a production of Aida, withRobert McFerrin, Sr.as Amonasro. Among other great artists, the NNOC was responsible for training McFerrin in his musical endeavors. McFerrin is notable as not only the father of jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, but also as the first black male soloist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. This was only three weeks after contralto Marian Anderson became the first black female to sing a principal role at the Met.
The NNOC quickly grew, eventually becoming a host organization for some of the most talented and knowledgeable classical musicians, including Lillian Evanti. Lillian was a lyric soprano known well throughout Europe, but because of her race, she had been rejected time and time again by the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. In 1943, she sang the lead role in the National Negro Opera Company’s production of La Traviata.
If you have a purpose in which you can believe, there’s no end to the amount of things you can accomplish.” – Mary Cardwell Dawson
While the NNOC was not the first black opera company, it was the only one to see a relatively long existence. Several other companies had been established during the late 19thand early 20thcenturies, but would quickly fall out. The NNOC on the other hand grew greatly in popularity over the years. In 1942 Cardwell and her husband moved to Washington, D.C. where they had established the organization’s first new chapter, later performing with the original Pittsburgh chapter. By 1945, the organization had even more active chapters in Chicago, Illinois, New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio.
While the NNOC rose to great success, financial issues would begin to arise around 1944. It had become difficult to budget for performance schedules. Each schedule was made based off of the amount of capital raised prior to each season. Two shows in Washington D.C. were cancelled in July 1944 due to a rainstorm, which left many people angry. Those who had purchased tickets had come to Dawson’s home banging on her door, demanding refunds. She agreed to pay out their refunds, but this only helped worsen the financial downfall that the company was seeing. It was becoming increasingly difficult for Dawson to pay musicians, stagehands, or even herself.
Despite all of the troubles, Dawson continued living on through her love of music, still making it her life. She did was she loved, and still did whatever she could to provide opportunities to young black artists through the NNOC. In 1955 the NNOC became the first independent company and the first African-American company to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. This was a great success for Dawson, and helped further break racial barriers in the world of music. In recognition of her years of success and perseverance in the music industry, President John F. Kennedy had appointed Dawson to the National Music Committee in 1961. Unfortunately, she died of a heart attack shortly after in 1962. The NNOC disbanded shortly after her death, but left an incredible history behind.
She had accomplished so much for not only young and aspiring black artists, but the music world as a whole. She never stopped doing what she loved, even when things seemed difficult or nearly impossible. Her musical legacy will live on throughout history.
The National Negro Opera Company collection is housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C
From Wikipedia: In 1994 the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission designated the NNOC’s house on Apple Street a historic structure; it became a Pittsburgh City Historic Landmark in 2008. In 2003 and again in 2013, the Young Preservationists of Pittsburgh included the building on their “Top 10” preservation opportunities.
In 2007 a local newspaper reported that restoration efforts were underway, led by Jonnet Solomon-Nowlin and a nonprofit, The National Opera House. Solomon stated her organization aimed to transform the historic building into a new arts center.