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Pittsburgh’s Jazz Legacy: A Starter Playlist

Throughout the history and development of jazz music, the worldwide cultural significance of contributions to the art form made by Pittsburgh’s legendary Black musicians cannot be understated. With nicknames like “Little Harlem” and the “Crossroads of the World,” The Hill District neighborhood was the center of Pittsburgh’s jazz scene. Its most famous venue, The Crawford Grill, along with the many other clubs along Wylie and Centre Avenues, held performances by both local legends and world-renowned jazz musicians. Pittsburgh was a common stop for touring jazz musicians between New York City and Chicago. Many Pittsburgh jazz musicians were particularly influential in the development of “bebop,” a jazz style following swing music which was faster, more complex, and more experimental. This improvisational style of the 1940s led to the development of modern jazz.

Check out this playlist featuring music from Pittsburgh’s most famous Black jazz artists. Each album linked is available for streaming through the library’s free music streaming resources, so feel free to listen along while learning more about Pittsburgh’s rich jazz history!

1. Earl “Fatha” Hines

Born in Duquesne in 1903, Earl “Fatha” Hines is often cited as one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time and known as the “father of modern jazz piano.” Growing up in a musical family, Hines studied classical piano as a child and moved to Pittsburgh as a teenager to study music at Schenley High School. When Hines and fellow Pittsburgh singer Lois Deppe performed a duet on KDKA radio in 1921, it became considered the first live radio appearance by African American artists on radio in the U.S. Hines eventually moved to Chicago to become a part of Louis Armstrong’s first self-led band, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. Their group’s version of West End Blues is considered an early jazz recording masterpiece which prominently features Hines on piano. From the late 1920s on, he went on to become a legendary bandleader who mentored future jazz legends including Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Earl “Fatha” Hines – The Earl Hines Collection Piano Solos (1928 – 1940) (Alexander Street Press)

2. Mary Lou Williams

Born in Atlanta in 1910 before moving to Pittsburgh, Mary Lou Williams’ beginnings as a child prodigy led her to become known around East Liberty as “the little piano girl.” Williams was among the first of many famous Black artists to attend Westinghouse High School in Homewood. Known as one of the earliest great jazz piano players and perhaps most influential woman jazz pianist of all time, Williams’ career of over 60 years influenced every era of jazz she lived through. She was also a major influence in the establishment of the first Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival in 1964, which continues to be a landmark annual event in the city to this day.

This album was among the earliest which mixed elements of classical music and jazz with an overarching concept; each piece was dedicated to and inspired by artists and their corresponding astrological signs.

Mary Lou Williams – Zodiac Suite (1945) (Alexander Street Press)

3. Roy Eldridge

Born on the Northside in 1911, Roy Eldridge is known for his role in bridging the gap between earlier swing trumpet playing and the more complex bebop jazz styles like his contemporary Dizzy Gillespie. After moving to Harlem in 1930, his success continued to grow as musician and bandleader working with artists including Billie Holliday, Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw, and his brother, saxophonist Joe Eldridge. This album features two legendary jazz trumpeters as well as Ray Brown, a fellow Pittsburgh native, in the rhythm section on bass.

Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie – Roy and Diz (1954) (Alexander Street Press)

4. Maxine Sullivan

Born in Homestead in 1911, Maxine Sullivan was a jazz vocalist of the swing era who was a major influence for later singers including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Peggy Lee. In the 1930s, her prominence rose after being discovered performing at a Homestead speakeasy, the Benjamin Harris Literary Society. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1987, she even recalled her humble beginnings in Homestead at age 7, “singing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ at the Carnegie Library in Homestead, PA., wearing my high-top shoes, in 1918.”

Sullivan and her then-husband John Kirby headlined a CBS radio show “Flow Gently, Sweet Rhythm” in the early 1940s, which made them the first Black jazz artists to have their own nationally syndicated radio series. The recordings on this album are from this period of her career.

Maxine Sullivan and the John Kirby Orchestra – World Broadcast Recordings 1940-41 (Alexander Street Press)

5. Art Blakey

Born in the Hill District in 1911, Art Blakey’s professional career began in his teens playing piano in local clubs, but he ultimately ended up becoming a drummer. Blakey went on to play in bands with Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine, and many other renowned bebop musicians until forming his own band, The Jazz Messengers. After several iterations, his group, “Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers” continued with Blakey as bandleader for nearly 40 years. His group is known as an originator of the “hard bop” genre and launched the successful careers of many jazz greats including Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, and both Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Art Blakey is often considered among the greatest jazz drummers of all time, and this album is considered a quintessential hard bop jazz album.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers – Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (“Moanin”) (1958) (Alexander Street Press)

6. Kenny Clarke

Born in 1914, Kenny Clarke grew up in the Hill District. Clarke began working as a drummer professionally in his teens, which included playing with fellow Pittsburgh natives Roy and Joe Eldridge. After moving to New York in the 1930s, he began playing with other jazz legends working there, eventually joining Dizzy Gilespie’s group. As the house drummer at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in the early 1940s, Clarke paved the path towards a new style of jazz drumming which involved playing the snare and bass drums at irregular intervals with accents. Nicknamed “dropping bombs,” Clarke’s style laid the foundation for bebop’s rhythm and later modern jazz drumming. He was also an original founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet alongside fellow Pittsburgh native bassist Ray Brown. Clarke moved to Paris in 1956, where he lived until his death in 1985. He spent most of the rest of his jazz career playing with both touring jazz musicians and other jazz expatriates in Europe, including saxophonist Dexter Gordon.

Dexter Gordon – Our Man in Paris (1963) (Alexander Street Press)

7. Billy Eckstine

Born in 1914, Billy Eckstine grew up in Highland Park and attended Peabody High School in East Liberty before moving to Washington DC. As a working singer throughout the 1930s, he eventually achieved more widespread fame with fellow Pittsburgher Earl “Fatha” Hines’ Grand Terrace Orchestra in Chicago. Eckstine gained widespread fame as a baritone crooner and a bandleader whose group fostered future superstars including Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Art Blakey, and Miles Davis. These recordings are from a series of radio broadcasts recorded in 1945.

Billy Eckstine and his Orchestra – The Swingin’ Mr. B (2006; recorded in 1945) (Alexander Street Press)

8. Billy Strayhorn

Although born in Dayton, Ohio in 1915, Billy Strayhorn grew up in Homewood and was another famous Westinghouse High School student. His career took off after he met Duke Ellington for the first time in 1938 after a performance by Ellington at the Stanley Theater (now the Benedum Center). Strayhorn played several songs on piano for Ellington which impressed him enough to invite Strayhorn a few days later to move to New York to work for him. This event marked the beginning of the nearly 30-year long period during which Strayhorn and Ellington collaborated on over 500 compositions and arrangements together. Some of Strayhorn’s most famous compositions include “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” and “Lush Life,” which he wrote while “clerking at the Pennfield drugstore on the corner of

Washington and Penn.” Strayhorn is also known for being the first openly gay artist in jazz history.

While Strayhorn’s career was largely overshadowed by Duke Ellington’s widespread fame throughout their songwriting partnership, this album stands as one of the few on which Strayhorn recorded, arranged, and played his own compositions without Ellington.

Billy Strayhorn – The Peaceful Side (1963) (Hoopla)

9. Erroll Garner

Born in 1921 in East Liberty, Erroll Garner was another famous Westinghouse High School graduate. By age 7, Garner was playing piano on local radio station KQV in a group with other young musicians called the Kan-D-Kids. As he continued playing local jazz clubs and on riverboats on the Allegheny throughout his youth, he eventually moved to New York City where he continued to gain more prominence throughout the 1940s and 1950s. His composition, “Misty,” became a well-known jazz standard and his live album “Concert By The Sea” became one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time. Additionally, his extensive archive has been housed by the University of Pittsburgh since 2015.

Erroll Garner – Concert By The Sea (1955) (Naxos Music Library Jazz)

10. Ray Brown

Born in 1926, Ray Brown grew up in Oakland and attended Schenley High School. In the school orchestra, he made the decisive switch from piano to bass so he would have more opportunities to play. After graduating, he moved to New York City and quickly became a part of the group of jazz musicians who were pioneering the bebop style. Throughout his career, a few of his milestones include musical director, arranger, and husband to Ella Fitzgerald and founding member of the famed Modern Jazz Quartet. Some of Brown’s longest gigs included touring internationally with Jazz at the Philharmonic for 18 years and as the bassist in the Oscar Peterson Trio for nearly 15 years.

Oscar Peterson Trio – Night Train (1963) (Alexander Street Press)

11. Ahmad Jamal

Born in 1930 and raised in East Liberty, Ahmad Jamal started his formal piano study as a child with Pittsburgh legend Mary Cardwell Dawson, the founder of the first African-American opera company in the U.S. Jamal also attended Westinghouse High School and began his touring career with a fellow Westinghouse student’s group, the George Hudson Orchestra. By the 1950s, he was leading various groups, mostly trios, under different names. His trio’s 1958 live album, “At the Pershing: But Not for Me,” became one of the best-selling jazz albums of the decade. In particular, his version of the Latin jazz standard “Poinciana” became one of his most popular songs. Throughout Jamal’s career spanning over seven decades, he often cited Pittsburgh’s influence on his artistry. He even recorded an album in 1989 as a tribute to his hometown, suitably named “Pittsburgh.”

Ahmad Jamal Trio – The Awakening (1970) (Alexander Street Press)

12. Stanley Turrentine

Born in the Hill District in 1934, Stanley Turrentine grew up in a musical family. His father, Thomas Turrentine Sr., played saxophone with a group called the Savoy Sultans and was Stanley’s first saxophone teacher. His mother was a piano teacher and his brother, Tommy Turrentine Jr., was a trumpeter who came up professionally alongside Stanley, even playing in a few different groups together with his brother. Following a stint in the army, Turrentine experienced more widespread success after playing for legendary jazz drummer Max Roach’s band alongside his brother Tommy. Throughout the 1960s, Stanley’s works contributed to the growing popularity of the “soul jazz” subgenre. He recorded some of these albums together with his then-wife, organist Shirley Scott, including their 1965 album “Hustlin’.” His 1970 album “Sugar,” which also features Pittsburgh guitarist George Benson, was among Turrentine’s most successful. Its title track has since become a jazz standard.

Stanley Turrentine – Hustlin’ (1965) (Alexander Street Press)

13. Paul Chambers

Born in Pittsburgh in 1935, Paul Chambers went on to become one of the most prolific jazz bassists of the 1950s and 1960s. Chambers performed on over 300 albums with some of the greatest names in jazz including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock. His eight years playing with Miles Davis led to the creation of jazz recordings considered among the greatest of all time. If you’re new to jazz, this Miles Davis album is often recommended as a great entry point. Many consider “Kind of Blue” to be the greatest jazz album of all time.

Miles Davis – Kind of Blue (1959) (Naxos Music Library Jazz)

14. George Benson

Born in 1943 in the Hill District, George Benson’s early career milestones include earning a few dollars playing ukelele in a neighborhood drugstore at age 7 and briefly playing in a nightclub on weekends at age 8. Another famous Schenley High School student, Benson went from recording his first record at age 10, “She Makes Me Mad,” to becoming known as one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time. Since gaining more prominence in the 1960s while playing with organist Jack McDuff, Benson went on to record renowned works which became influential across musical genres. His 1976 triple platinum album, “Breezin’,” is one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.

George Benson – Breezin’ (1976) (Alexander Street Press)

Recommended Reading:

For more information about library resources related to jazz history and research, check out our Music LibGuide.

For the most up-to-date information about where to see live jazz performances throughout Pittsburgh, check out WZUM’s Jazz Central calendar.

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