A group of Pittsburghers are attempting to reawaken the city’s spirit. They are the jazz musicians.
These are musicians who have devoted their life to the pursuit of the ideal melodic line. They are artists who are merging their voices to infuse new life into a city that is witnessing an uncertain cultural renaissance.
Due to its geographic location between New York City and Chicago, and a beehive of talent that found a home in the Hill District, where performers could play a different club every night of the week, Pittsburgh has a rich jazz heritage. However, the scene has mostly dried up as those venues have closed and audiences have diminished over the years.
That is changing now. There are new clubs and haunts around town where jazz is performed on a regular basis. There is new talent everywhere. And there are new listeners eager for some cultural enrichment, not to mention delicious food and drink.
The jazz club Con Alma’s initial location in Shadyside opened in 2019. A second branch in Downtown opened on July 1. The first is an intimate New York City-style club, while the second is a touch more busy. Windows are flung open to let in a breeze and tempt passerbys.
Other venues, such as Kingfly Spirits in the Strip District, Scratch Food and Beverage in Troy Hill, and others, are scheduling more jazz. This is allowing local musicians to hone their skills and try out new material.
This is in addition to the August Wilson African American Cultural Center and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust , both in Downtown. And City of Asylum and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild Craftsmen’s both on the North Side. WZUM-FM broadcasts jazz and maintains an up-to-date calendar of all jazz events in the city.
The scene now is definitely more healthy and robust than it has been in the last seven or eight years.
This is in no small part down to Con Alma for helping to revitalize the city’s performance opportunities.
The club scene was dead four years ago but now all kinds of places are now playing jazz again.
Con Alma anchors the club scene with two locations programming a total of ten nights a week. It has an eclectic mix of regulars and newcomers wandering in and out throughout the week. The Downtown club has a laid-back vibe. Performers frequently kid around with each other and the audience and accept smatterings of applause after solos.
The food, drinks, décor, and atmosphere are all at such a high level that some people who come aren’t even jazz fans yet.
As the touring scene heats up, some performers are getting more requests to perform from out-of-town groups.
Major players in New York and New Orleans are acknowledging Pittsburgh’s resurgence as an important club jazz scene.
However, clubs are still prioritizing local talent. Some of them could be playing anywhere in the world, but they chose to stay.
As an indicator of the scene’s resurgence much of the surge in talent are at a much younger age.
As more venues program jazz and club opportunities expand, both newer players and seasoned veterans now have freedom to develop their craft; establishing a cross-generational learning forum.
One of the things you see in Pittsburgh more than other places is the interaction across generations. Jazz is learnt by playing and hanging out with older, more experienced musicians. You learn jazz in the same way that you learn your grandmother’s greatest dish. It’s a lovely, intimate thing.
With stalwarts like drummer Roger Humphries and bassist Dwayne Dolphin still on the scene, that exchange is bound to help progress the scene.
The Manchester Craftsman’s Guild, one of the city’s most venerable presenting groups, is likewise undergoing a renaissance.
The theater is undergoing extensive renovations. These are expected to be completed by September 24, when the new subscription season begins.
MCG Jazz is also in the midst of collecting more than 30 years’ worth of audio recordings by many of the world’s finest performers with Pittsburgh origins. The eventual outcome will be thousands of hours of high-level live performance. Included are those by Billy Eckstine, Art Blakey, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Strayhorn and many others, which MCG will use in its instructional programs.
In 2018, MCG published the documentary We Knew What We Had: The Greatest Jazz Story Never Told. A study of Pittsburgh’s jazz culture in the twentieth century and a fascinating history of the city’s national significance.
In addition, in September, Alphabet City at City of Asylum will kick off its annual Jazz Poetry Month, adding an international flavor to the city’s jazz culture. Jazz Poetry Month offers a combination of virtual and in-person programming, which began on Sunday with violinist Layale Chaker. He will be performing music inspired by Arabic poetry with her ensemble Sarafand.
There will be poetry readings, vocalists, and jazz performances.
They have audiences in all 50 states and more than 65 countries across the world after a year of virtual events.
There’s also a gastronomic component, as 40 North has opened in the former Bruge on North area at City of Asylum’s Alphabet City.
Throughout the month, musicians and poets from over seven nations will take part in Jazz Poetry Month, including the Estonian Slow Motion Orchestra and the New York-based Thumbscrew. As well as the Macedonian Vlatko Stefanovski Trio and the Japanese Norihide Nakajima Quintet.
Pittsburgh Jazz Festival is a music festival held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The 11th Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival will be held at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center in Downtown Pittsburgh from September 17th to the 19th. Highmark Stadium will have Grammy-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis, vocalist Gregory Porter, jazz and R&B duet The Baylor Project, Jazzmeia Horn, and others, with Chaka Khan launching the event at the Benedum Center.
The event has always been free, but in order to cover the costs of renting the stadium and maintain the level of artists high, the festival will be ticketed this year.
The minimum standard of the scene is also improving. Dozens of concerts held each month in clubs, concert halls, and distilleries to satisfy the city’s growing appetite for jazz. And the rest of the country is watching.