Pass It On: Pittsburgh Jazz Mentorship Tradition Continues

Feb 28, 2018

Pittsburgh is known globally for its jazz musicians, and for more than a century the city’s African-American community has provided a unique environment that fostered the talents of world-renowned artists. While some historic music incubators have disappeared, others live on.  

On a recent Saturday night, people from all over Pittsburgh participated in a tradition that goes back generations: a jazz celebration at the Afro American Music Institute on Hamilton Avenue in Homewood. The “Jazz On The Loading Dock” series provides a window into the way a musical tradition in Pittsburgh passes from established to aspiring musicians.

Nelson Harrison is a trombonist, one-time member of The Count Basie Orchestra and a life-long Pittsburgher who grew up immersed in the city’s jazz community.

"Whenever I meet a musician, especially if they’re in the jazz world or trying to be, the first question I ask them is 'Who are your mentors?'" said Harrison. "It has to be somebody who spoke the language, because jazz is spoken music."

When he was coming up more than 50 years ago, he said there were plenty of older musicians willing to pass on what they knew.

"And so you found a way to get next to them … if you had a chance to talk to them, you had questions," said Harrison.

Guitarist Joe Negri said he also took advantage of the pass-it-on tradition. Negri was especially interested in learning from a trumpeter who was about the same age he was, but knew a lot about music.

"I thought Tommy Turrentine was just like,wonderful. He was so knowledgeable," said Negri in a 2007 interview. "He knew the theory behind stuff…and he was very liberal in sharing with us all."

That informal instruction infected the clubs, people’s homes and often Local 471, an AFL-CIO union hall used by black musicians during the days of segregation. 

Chartered in 1908 and was located on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District, the Local provided a gathering place for musicians to rehearse and socialize. And while white musicians had to join the white local, they were welcomed socially at Local 471. Negri, who is white, said he never felt like an outsider at Local 471.

"As far as the musicians were concerned, we got along beautifully," Negri said. "We just all hung out together."

Harrison also benefited from the informal mentorship, especially from Court of Common Please Judge Warren Watson, who also played saxophone and trumpet.

"He taught us how to play jazz, how to articulate it," Harrison said. "There’s a different language, there’s a dialect. It’s not from the sheet music, it’s the way you play the sheet music."

Local 471 was "a place where you could find that language spoken," he said.

But things changed with urban renewal in the late 1950's. The land redevelopment initiative displaced thousands of Hill District residents and hundreds of businesses. In the 1960s, the city’s black and white unions were forced to merge by the American Federation of Musicians. Eventually, most jazz musicians left the union, and Local 471’s union hall was no longer available for jam sessions and informal instruction. The business of live music changed too, said Harrison.  

"Venues come and go, you see that all the time. There are no after-hours clubs anymore, that used to happen all the time, we used to play til daylight," he said.

Drummer Jevon Rushton, 31, said he feels like he's one of the last to have gotten a taste of the era. These days, he's taking his turn passing along what he knows to younger musicians.

"It’s exciting," Rushton said, "because it lets me know that jazz is not going to die."