Pittsburgh Jazz (Images of America series)
By John M. Brewer, Jr.
While a handful of cities garner the lion’s share of jazz historian’s attention (New Orleans, New York, KC, and Chicago) most major American metropolises have their own jazz histories and traditions. America’s Steel City gets its due in John Brewer’s Pittsburgh Jazz, the latest installment in the Images of America series.
Largely drawn from the archives of the Pittsburgh Courier and the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Charles “Teenie” Harris collection, there are many images collected here that jazz lovers will enjoy. Many famous jazz artists were born in, spent their formative years in, or were associated with the city at some time, including Billy Strayhorn, Maxine Sullivan, Ahmad Jamal, Errol Garner, Stanley Turrentine, and Mary Lou Williams. However, several captions do not make a clear connection between artist and city. Others are somewhat tenuous, like that accompanying a Thelonious Monk photo, which shoehorns in a Pitt reference: “When the troupe reached Kansas City, Monk met and was influenced by Mary Lou Williams, the Pittsburgh pianist.” (p. 17)
Williams herself does get appropriate recognition as pianist, composer, and mentor to young musicians. Also getting deserved credit are some musicians lesser known outside of Pittsburgh, like Charles Bell, who was compared to John Lewis when he recorded for Columbia and Atlantic in the 1960’s. We later see his son drummer Charles “Poogie” Bell in a photo in which: “Poogie is only three years old. He later went on to play with some great names from Pittsburgh and around the country.” (P. 64)
Walt Harper is another local hero featured prominently. Disappointingly, his Gateway label-mate trombonist Harold Betters is only featured once, and not seen at his regular gig entertaining Steelers fans at home games.
Despite some pretty clunky captions, Pitt Jazz collects some nice images and documents some of the city’s unique artists and venues. It is always good to be reminded that vital music can be created outside of New York, and that seems to still be the case in Pittsburgh.