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Joe Westray

Joe Westray (June 1, 1913 - July 9, 1980; full name: Benjamin Joseph Westray, Jr.) was a prominent figure in Pittsburgh's jazz scene as a guitarist, bandleader, nightclub owner, and as president of the Local 471 musicians union for ten years.

Westray was a teacher to guitarist George Benson for many years and two of his most famous sidemen were pianists Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal. (Variety, Aug. 6, 1980) Saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, at 14 years old, was taken into Westray's band to play gigs throughout the tri-state area. (New Pittsburgh Courier, Jun. 20, 1992) Dakota Staton was a featured vocalist with Westray in the early 1950s before she was discovered in New York. (Pittsburgh Courier, Feb. 24, 1962)

Westray was a graduate of Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie-Mellon University). (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jul. 10, 1980)

In his memoir, Dirt Street, alto saxophonist Hosea Taylor documented his time with Westray's band in 1946 and 1947. He described Westray as:

a very aggressive and forceful man who was somewhat affluent -- let's just say he was ghetto rich -- he owned and rented all kinds of residential and commercial properties plus several trucks to handle a hauling contract with a big food chain warehouse. ... Joe Westray was quite the entrepreneur. He was a good role model for anyone who wished to succeed. (pp. 178-179)

Though Taylor said that Westray's band might have seemed outdated to a bebopper (p. 177-178), his band was "one of the three hottest Negro jazz and dance bands in the city of Pittsburgh at that time." (p. 158) The other two were Will Hitchcock's Big Dream Band and Walt Harper's group. The Pittsburgh Courier described Westray as a "wealthy businessman who probably was the first Negro bandleader in modern Pittsburgh to make it money-wise" and that "Walt Harper credits Westray with teaching him many of the business angle [sic] of the music field." (Feb. 24, 1962)

In addition to the guitar, Westray also played the electraharp, a kind of electric pedal steel guitar manufactured by Gibson in the 1940s. Westray was also described as "a top arranger" who did "a great deal of work for singers and other artists in addition to scoring for his own outfit." (Pittsburgh Courier, May 3, 1952) After he retired from active playing to devote more time to his business interests, Westray took up the organ. (Pittsburgh Courier, Feb. 24, 1962)

Westray's best-remembered business venture was Westray Plaza located on 913-917 Lincoln Avenue in East Liberty [or more accurately, the southern part of the Lincoln-Lemington-Belmar neighborhood] which included a skating rink and a dance hall. (New Pittsburgh Courier, Jul. 19, 1980)

As an example of Westray's significance to the Pittsburgh music community, at his July 12, 1980 memorial service at Shiloh Community Baptist Church, the pall bearers were prominent local musicians: LeRoy Brown, Nelson Harrison, Walt Harper, Honey Boy Minor, Thay Whiteley and Fred Pryor. (New Pittsburgh Courier, Jul. 19, 1980)

Further Research

A recording of a 1997 interview with Joe's sister Cathy Westray by Chuck Austin of the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh is located at the Archives Service Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

Numerous photographs of Joe Westray, as an accompanist and group leader, and some photos of Westray Plaza are found in the archive of photographer Teenie Harris at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

Recordings

Other than a 45 RPM single from 1962 where the Joe Westray Organ Combo is the backing band for Chuck Edwards, we know of no other commercially released audio or film recordings of Westray's music. If you have evidence of other Westray recordings, please contact us.


Go to Pittsburgh Jazz Musicians page.