Pittsburgh Jazz Ain’t What It Used To Be: It’s... Something Else

Aug 28, 2015

Stephanie Wellons sings as easily as most people talk.

As though it were a parenthetical statement, Wellons changes from speech to song, climbing the first hill of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

“I was born by the river, in a little tent. And just like the river I’ve been running ever since,” Wellons sang, ending the interlude with a laugh. “I communicate that way.”

Wellons is a vocalist and entertainer. She sings jazz. But like the genre, she’s not limited — she also sings R&B, gospel and pop. Being comfortable in a wash of styles and sounds is one of the reasons Wellons loves Pittsburgh, where there is no one style.

“I’m very grateful, because I’ve listened,” she said. “I listen. As musicians we take from each other, and that’s a good thing.”

From the 1920s to the 1950s, jazz was the music. It wafted from spots all over the city, including the old Downtown Stanley Theater, where bandleader Max Adkins launched a generation of jazz greats like Billy Strayhorn and Henry Mancini. But at only 1.4 square miles, it was the Hill — so packed with life and music that Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay famously called it “the crossroads of the world” — that was home to legends Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, Mary Lou Williams and others.

“Back in the day it was every corner and the middle of the block there [were] clubs, everybody’s playing somewhere,” said Roger Humprhies. “One day we’re going to get back to that again.”

Roger Humphries is a drummer. No, a percussion giant. He’s played with the best and all over the world. Jazz is coming back to Pittsburgh, he said, but it won’t be the same.

“I think it’s going to spread to other places,” he said.

Part of why jazz centralized in the Hill was because segregation often prevented black musicians from leading bands in white clubs, Humphries said.  

“When I was coming up, there wasn’t so many places African Americans would be allowed to work,” he said. “But we worked up through the Hill, so we had everything going on there.”

Drummer Spider Rondinelli sat in his Clairton living room with his wife, Georgina. He started to snap his fingers.

“‘Stella By Starlight’ is one of my favorite songs,” he said. “Are you hip to that?” Rondinelli started to hum, and the wind chimes on the front porch caught the melody.

“Songs are so important. They’re vehicles,” he said. “That’s what we play, a vehicle.”

Though his father wanted him to be a tap dancer, Rondinelli had other ideas.

“I said, ‘I want to play the music that I want to dance to, that’s all.’ See, jazz, it’s magic. Jazz swings. And swinging is like my life. That's it. As long as it swings you can do no wrong,” he said.  

Rondinelli knew who he wanted to be the first time he heard Stan Kenton play, he said, singing the first few bars of Kenton’s “Across The Alley From the Alamo.” He shook his head, remembering.  

“No one could be told to like jazz," he said. "You have to find it on your own.”  

Tuesdays in the summer a few hundred people “find it” at Katz Plaza. On a recent evening, James Johnson III and his band filled the square with jazz. White sneakers and high heels and loafers kept the beat, while men in shirts and ties paused on the plaza’s edge. Not quite ready to sit down, but not ready to leave, either, held by the jazz beating through the heart of the city, where it’s been all along.

90.5 WESA Celebrates Inventing Pittsburgh is supported by UPMC.