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Pittsburgh Jazz Performers: Past And Present

Joella Marano

Pittsburgh's Black Jazz Musicians Union

Every Saturday, a group of local musicians gathers in the auditorium of the Homewood Library to carry on Pittsburgh’s rich jazz tradition. They are the descendants of the Black Musician’s Union, a collection of pianists, drummers, and other performers who worked Pittsburgh’s clubs and dissolved in the 1960s.

Many of the clubs and musicians are long gone, but the stories of this small group continue to thrive, and they're now seeing increased attention because of a new film.  Anthology: Local #471 Musicians Union, is about the now-defunct union and some of its more famous members.

With the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival starting next week, it was the perfect time for Essential Pittsburgh to look back at Pittsburgh’s rich jazz history. Labor historian Charles McCollester and Jackie Young, whose father Harold founded the local jazz group talked about how the Black Musician’s Union was established.

“The 460 (the original musician’s union) just didn’t really want to represent the black musicians, they didn’t want to give them their share of gigs, they didn’t want to represent them if they had some type of conflict, so that’s why the 471 was erected in the first place.”

McCollester talked about the importance of the 471 in the local jazz scene.

“If you wanted to play jazz in Pittsburgh, pretty much you belonged to the black local [union]. It was very strong, and it enforced the fact that the people got paid and they got what the going rate was, and that was a very, very important thing. But even more important than that was the camaraderie in the club itself. The heart of black jazz in Pittsburgh was the club and there, all the greats would come. Nelson Harrison talks about seeing, you know, Frank Sinatra would walk in with Ella Fitzgerald and they’d sit down and there’d be all these other great players just sitting around and it would go to four or five in the morning.”

Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival

The 4th Annual Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival gets underway next weekend. The free festival consists of three days of jazz and jazz-influenced musical performances on outdoor stages and attracts more than 20,000 attendees from around the world.

Bob Studebaker is 90.5 WESA’s resident jazz expert. As host of Saturday Night JazzWorks and Tuesday night JazzLive in Katz Plaza, he previewed some of the talent that will be coming to Pittsburgh for the festival.

Dianne Reeves is one of the performers Studebaker is most excited to hear.

“Dianne Reeves, if anybody could the successor to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan as the premier female jazz vocalist. She is extraordinary… she has that intangible presence when she walks onstage. She’s one of those people that has that extra something that the rest of us don’t, and she’s a great singer. She’s a fitting culmination to this three-day jazz festival.”

Studebaker also explained why jazz has been so integral to Pittsburgh’s culture and history.

“When jazz came to Pittsburgh, it was heard by, and then recreated by, people who understood Mozart and Haydn and Beethoven. There was a sophistication to the level of jazz created here that was not common in other cities, where it would often be people who could play by ear and put something together. It’s why this town has such a jazz identity.”

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