Jazz in Pittsburgh - Birth of  Be Bop

Jazz in Pittsburgh - Birth of Be Bop

Did you know that Pittsburgh had a profound influence on the American musical artform of jazz?

Pittsburgh is home to the mastermind behind the Big Mac. It is the location of the first commercial broadcast in radio by KDKA in 1920.  And, of course, Pittsburgh is well known for having been a global hub of the steel industry. But did you know that Pittsburgh had a profound influence on the American musical artform of jazz? Pittsburgh's strategic location between New York and Chicago brought hundreds of the pioneers of jazz through the varied clubs and venues dotted throughout our city. 

Jazz came to Pittsburgh's neighborhoods in the mid-1920s and, in fact, The Hill District became known as "Little Harlem" from the 1920s until the early 1950s. The epicenter of jazz music in Pittsburgh was the Crawford Grille in the Hill District, which opened in 1930. As jazz music's popularity rose, "The Grill" attracted jazz legends to its stage, including Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Billy Eckstine and Stanley Turrentine.  The Grille became known as a spot where black artists and white artists could jam together without the shackles of segregation.

Birth of Be Bop 

Just as Pittsburgh helped to shaped the varied genres of jazz, jazz has shaped the "joyful noise" of Pittsburgh. Music has always been an important part of Pittsburgh from Stephen Foster in the 19th Century to Wiz Khalifa today. Jazz. This distinctly American musical genre has an enduring legacy in Pittsburgh with an influential sound celebrated worldwide.

Teagarden Mary Lou Williams Tadd Dameron Hank Jones Dizzy Gillespie Gottlieb
Mary Lou Williams in her apartment with Jack Teagarden, Tadd Dameron, Hank Jones and Dizzy Gillespie

Local artists absorbed and learned from the unique stylings of the various master musicians passing through, and in turn developed new jazz flavors of their own. Pittsburgh jazz musicians are widely credited as the founders of the Be Bop, Hard Bob, and Vocalese styles of jazz.  

A number of influential musicians emerged from our city. Stephen Foster (the father of American music), Kenny ClarkMary Lou WilliamsAhmad JamalErroll Garner, and Billy Strayhorn (Duke Ellington's primary musical collaborator for 28 years) all came from the Pittsburgh's East End neighborhoods. 

A number of other musicians came from nearby communities outside of our city, including: Maxine SullivanSonny Clark, and Earl "Fatha" Hines (the father of modern jazz piano). Trumpeter Roy Eldridge, drummer Kenneth Spearman "Klook" Clarke, pianist Dodo Marmarosa, and influential bassist Ray Brown were also born in Pittsburgh. 

Other notable local jazz musicians include: Paul Chambers, Lena Horne, Eric Kloss, Walt Harper, Horace Parlan, Nathan Davis, George Benson, Art Blakey, Roger Humphries, and Jeff "Tain" Watts. And the list goes on...

Jazz Still Thriving in Pittsburgh

Be it Afro-Cuban, Latin, Swing, Dixieland, Bluegrass, or Fusion you can find jazz performed from clubs to street corners throughout Pittsburgh. Of course you can still experience great live jazz in the city's jazz joints, clubs and pubs, including the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild's MCG Jazz Series on the North Side, and Con Alma Downtown. Take the time to check out some of the many Pittsburgh jazz ensembles touring the regions' venues: Pittsburgh Jazz SocietyBoilermaker Jazz Band and Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra.

Jazz fans have a place each year in Pittsburgh when the annual Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival comes to downtown Pittsburgh, hosted each summer by the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. This festival brings in world renowned Jazz musicians and highlights local musician as well. Also hosted annually by the August Wilson African American Cultural Center is the Highmark Blues and Heritage Festival.

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