Black History Month - Pittsburgh Jazz Legends

The City of Pittsburgh's celebration of Black History Month salutes PITTSBURGH JAZZ LEGENDS throughout February 2021.

This year's tribute -- taking place in virtual format via website and social media posts -- features an overview of Pittsburgh's jazz history, performer interviews, artist profiles and performance videos.

"We salute Pittsburgh’s jazz influence and recognize how over the past century, dozens of nightclubs in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, such as the Crawford Grill, supported a vibrant jazz scene,” said Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto.  “These clubs created a rich musical culture in Pittsburgh’s black community that produced an extraordinary number of jazz legends.”

When many people think about places that have influenced jazz, they think about cities such as New York and Chicago. However, many people do not know that the City of Pittsburgh also had a profound influence on jazz, which originated in the African American communities of New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. It was introduced to Pittsburgh by pianist Fate Marable and his band, one of the first African American jazz bands to travel North and included 18-year-old jazz legend Louis Armstrong. Fate and his family decided to settle in Pittsburgh, and while there he spent his time playing piano in many of Pittsburgh’s Hill District clubs.

By the 1930s, dozens of nightclubs in the Hill District supported a vibrant jazz scene. After playing in the white theaters and downtown clubs, jazz musicians from around the country would head to one of the dozens of clubs located in the Hill District to cut loose and play late into the night, and often into the early morning hours. Pittsburgh's musical venues included Crawford Grill, Ellis Hotel, Webster Grill, Blue Note, Ritz, Bamboola, Stanley's, American Legion's Carney Post and Iron City Elks Club. These clubs created a rich musical culture in Pittsburgh’s black community, which produced an extraordinary number of jazz masters including Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine, Art Blakey, Walt Harper, Ahmad Jamal, George Benson, Roger Humphries and others. Many of these musicians have gone down in history for their profound influences on jazz and stellar musical talent.

Crawford Grill

Photo by Charles 'Teenie' Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images



Earl “Fatha” Hines at piano with cigar.

Earl Hines, New York, March 1947
Photo by William Gottlieb, Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress (LC-GLB13- 0415)


Earl “Fatha” Hines was one of the most influential jazz pianists during the twentieth century due to his “trumpet style” piano style. He is credited for the creation of the modern piano and known as one of the greatest piano players in the world. Earl Kenneth Hines was born on December 28, 1903 in Duquesne, Pennsylvania. He was born into a very musical family with a father who played the cornet and a stepmother who was a church organist. His stepmother gave him his first piano lessons, and soon after that it was clear that he was an extremely talented musician.

At the age of 14, Hines moved to Pittsburgh to live with his aunt Sadie Philips, who was an opera singer. He attended Schenley High School, where he majored in music and formed his first musical trio that played at school functions, nightclubs and church socials. At the age of 17, he left home and took a job playing the piano with Lois Deppe and his Symphonian Serenader in Pittsburgh. In 1921, Hines and Deppe became the first African Americans to perform on the radio.

In 1925, Hines moved to the jazz capital, Chicago, Illinois. There he met jazz legend Louis Armstrong and together created a jazz trio with Zutty Singleton. Hines and Armstrong also went on to record several jazz tracks such as the “Weather Bird” and 36 singles including “Muggles” and “Tight Like This.” On Hines' 25th birthday, he opened at the Chicago Grand Terrace Café, which was controlled by the gangster Al Capone. He continued playing at the Grand Terrace Café for the next 12 years. During these years, Hines and his orchestra became extremely popular and the most famous jazz band on radio. He and his orchestra also became the first big Negro band to travel extensively through the south, which was not easy given the current racial climate. The band faced bombings and threats from local police.

In 1940, the Grand Terrace Café closed, forcing Hines to take his band on the road full-time for the next 8 years. During this time, Hines’ band, with the help of Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, planted the seeds for the emerging new style in jazz: bebop. His orchestra made many recordings including “Jelly Jelly,” “Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues” and "Stormy Monday Blue.” Unfortunately, Hines spent the last two of those eight years leading the band due to complications following a serious car crash that caused everlasting effects on his eyesight.

After a slight slump in Hines’ career, Stanley Dance (Hines' unofficial manger) helped him to get rediscovered during a series of recitals at the Little Theatre in New York. These recitals helped Hines regain fame and allowed him to tour the United States, Canada and Europe. Sadly in 1983, Hines died at his home in Oakland, California. His last wish was to auction off his Steinway piano to benefit gifted low-income music students.

Over his career, Hines received many awards and honors. He received Esquire Magazine's Silver Award in 1944. In 1965, Hines was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame, and in 1966 he won the International Critics Poll for Down Beat Magazine’s Hall of Fame. He was elected the World’s number one Jazz Pianist six different times, making him one of the greatest piano players of all times.



Mary Lou Williams at piano.


Mary Lou Williams was born on May 8, 1910 in Atlanta, Georgia, and she grew up in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. At a young age, it was clear that she was a musical prodigy, and she taught herself how to play the piano at age 3. She stated that her desire to play the piano was born out of necessity. Her white neighbors were throwing bricks into her family's house until Williams started playing the piano for them. At the age of 7, she started to perform for the public and soon became a professional musician in her teens. She became extremely popular in Pittsburgh’s club scene and played with some of the nation’s most notable jazz bands and artist that pass through the City of Pittsburgh.

In 1923, Williams joined Duke Ellington’s band, The Washingtonians. Then in 1926, she met and married saxophonist John Overton Williams and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to be with him and play in his band. At the age 19, she became the leader of that band when he left to join Andy Kirk’s band, Twelve Clouds of Joy. When the Twelve Clouds of Joy accepted a long-term engagement in Kansas City, Williams joined her husband and began composing and arranging for the band. She provided Kirk with the songs “Froggy Bottom,” “Walkin’ and Swingin’,” “Little Joe from Chicago” and “Mary’s Idea.”

In 1930, during a trip to Chicago, for the first time under her own name she recorded the piano solos “Drag ‘Em” and “Night Life.” “Night Life” was a huge success that brought national attention to Williams because of its unique combining elements of stride, ragtime, blues and the popular music of the day. Her success allowed her to do freelance work for some of the biggest jazz artists of the '30s including Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Earl Hines. Her work for Goodman resulted in the creation of another of her signature songs called “Roll ‘Em.”

In 1942, after 16 years of marriage, Williams and her husband divorced. As a result, she left the Twelve Clouds of Joy and returned to Pittsburgh, where she formed a new six-piece ensemble with Harold Baker and Art Blakey. Baker and Williams both soon left the band to go to New York City to join Duke Ellington’s Band where Williams arranged main songs for Ellington, one of which was “Trumpet No End.” Within a year, she left the group and composed the bebop hit “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” for Gillespie and composed the famous “Zodiac Suite” featuring 12 parts for each Zodiac sign with each part dedicated to a contemporaneous jazz musician.

In 1952, Williams accepted an offer to perform in England and ended up staying in Europe for two years. Her stay provided her with a much needed mental and physical break. When she returned to the States in 1954, she converted to Catholicism and spent much of her time and savings helping others battle addiction by turning her apartment in Hamilton Heights into a halfway house. Williams also went on to instruct school children in jazz and accepted a job with Duke University as an artist-in-residence.

Sadly, Mary Lou Williams died in 1981, at the age of 71, from bladder cancer in Durham, North Carolina. However, she made jazz history and created an everlasting legacy. She will forever be known as “the first lady of jazz keyboard” and will be remembered as one of the first women to break jazz’s all-male barrier and become one of the most innovative artists of all time thanks to her arrangements.



Billy Eckstine


William Clarence Eckstine was born in 1914 and raised in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. He attended Peabody High School, which actually operated up until 2011 before being replaced by The Barrack Obama Academy of International Studies. Eckstine moved to DC and attended Howard University until 1933 when he won an amateur talent contest and decided to move to Chicago.

Eckstine joined the Grand Terrace Orchestra, led by Earl Hines, in 1939 and began to make a name for himself as a vocalist and trumpeter with the band. He was featured on the hit song “Stormy Monday Blues” and had his own song, “Jelly Jelly,” lighting up juke boxes around the country. By 1944, Eckstine had formed his own big band that quickly became an incubator for talent. Over the years his band included big names such as Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis.

In 1947, Eckstine would go solo and re-record his band's hits “Cottage for Sale” and “Prisoner of Love.” His solo versions were far more successful, which led him to sign with the newly created MGM Records. Eckstine went on to make several more hits but is perhaps best known for his revival of Bing Crosby’s hit “I Apologize.” He would go on to be featured in several TV shows including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Nat King Cole Show and The Tonight Show.

Seemingly on his way to the top, Eckstine’s career was pigeonholed by a controversial photo (pictured above) featured in LIFE Magazine. The author of Billy Eckstine’s biography, Cary Ginell, had this to say about the photo: "The profile featured a photograph of Eckstine coming out of a nightclub in New York City, and being mobbed by white teenage girls. If you look at the photograph, it looks very innocuous and very innocent. It's actually what America should be like, with no racial tension, no racial separation — just honest love and happiness between the races. But America wasn't ready for that in 1950. White America did not want Eckstine dating their daughters." Eckstine’s popularity among white audiences plummeted. Although he continued to record and perform, white disc jockeys would not play his records on larger and more popular segregated stations.

Eckstine suffered a stroke in 1992 while on stage in Salina, Kansas. While in the hospital, his speech did improve but he suffered a heart attack and was never able to perform again. He died a few months later on March 8, 1993, at the age of 78. A State Historical Marker is placed at 5913 Bryant Street in Pittsburgh's Highland Park neighborhood to mark the house where Eckstine grew up.



In this Zoom interview, Roger Humphries discusses what it was like growing up in Pittsburgh, how he got his start as a musician and when he worked with greats Horace Silver and Ray Charles while traveling all over the world.

Enjoyed this interview? Find out more about Roger Humphries at his website.


Ahmad Jamal at piano

Photo provided from


Ahmad Jamal was born on July 2, 1930 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh was the home of many artists known the world over for their work and contributions to both European Classical Music and American Classical Music (the term Jamal prefers for jazz).

He began playing piano at age 3, the same age Erroll Garner started. Jamal and Garner attended the same elementary and high schools (Larimer Elementary School and Westinghouse High School). Jamal started his formal studies with noted educator Mary Cardwell Dawson, who was responsible for the first African American artists joining The Metropolitan Opera Company. When Dawson moved to Washington, DC, Jamal continued his studies with James Miller, a contemporary of Earl Wild, both Pittsburgh natives.

Ahmad started his own group in 1951 and with the help of John Hammond started his recording career with Okeh Records. That career has continued and resulted in one of the most successful recordings in the history of instrumental music, "The Ahmad Jamal Trio at The Pershing." The music was chosen by longtime fan Clint Eastwood for "The Bridges Of Madison County" and featured prominently in "The Wolf of Wall Street." It is also used in dance companies all over the world and continues to make musical history.

Ahmad’s career spans seven decades covering eras of The Art Form, big band, the Parker/Gillespie era to the electronic age. Jamal is one of the most sampled composers and recording artists in the world. He is still recording and producing artists and has just released "Jamal Plays Jamal" on his own label, available from


Walt Harperwith his daughter Sharynn Harper

Photo provided Sharynn Harper

I’m pleased with the way my career has turned out...I have been able to maintain my national contacts and do as much as I want with the luxury of not leaving Pittsburgh.

Walt Harper was born in 1926 in the Schenley Heights area of Pittsburgh. Born one of eight children, both of his older brothers, one a saxophonist and other a pianist, became part of the jazz scene before Walt, but he credits his brothers for influencing him towards music. After starting with valve trombone, Harper would later settle into the piano. He progressed through Schenley High School and graduated in 1947 before attending the University of Pittsburgh and The Pittsburgh Musical Institute. Harper then led a 10-piece band on the road from 1949 to 1954. The group appeared all over the East and Midwest with artists including Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and George Shearing. But Harper never took to the road and came back home to stay.

In 1958, Harper's band started a gig at the popular Crawford Grill in the Hill District as the club's house band. It would run for over a decade during the '50s and '60s. Harper remained at the Crawford until 1969 when he opened his own club, Walt Harper's Attic, downtown in Market Square, located up a flight of stairs above a State store. Harper brought in the biggest names of jazz. Stan Getz, Ramsey Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Joe Williams and Cannonball Adderley, along with local stars Billy Eckstine, Maxine Sullivan, Roy Eldridge, Ahmad Jamal and his high school buds Stanley Turrentine and Ray Brown graced the Attic. Things went swimmingly until 1976, when after seven years, Harper noisily bumped heads with his partners and sold the Attic. He took the time to perform and do his own projects, but he was back in business soon enough when he opened Harper's Jazz Club downstairs of the Grant Street Oxford Center in 1982. Professionally, Harper performed up and down the East Coast, led jazz workshops and cultural programs, recorded, appeared numerous times on national and local TV, received awards, wrote and composed music (he scored a ballet for Dance Alloy) and in the '70s, Harper and his group, All That Jazz, were hired by the Rooneys to play as the house band for Steelers home games, a job they held until 2002.

Harper, who resided in Point Breeze, died suddenly on October 25, 2006. He suffered a reported heart attack and died en route to UPMC Shadyside. He was 80 years old at the time.

Sharynn Harper goes more in depth about her father's life, music and career in these interview questions (PDF, 3MB).


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Art Blakey playing drums.

Photo provided by website

Born in 1919, Art Blakey began his musical career, as did many jazz musicians, in the church. The foster son of a devout Seventh Day Adventist family, Blakey learned the piano as he learned the Bible, mastering both at an early age. But as Blakey himself told it so many times, his career on the piano ended at the wrong end of a pistol when the owner of the Democratic Club — the Pittsburgh nightclub where he was gigging — ordered him off the piano and onto the drums. As a young drummer, he came under the tutelage of legendary drummer and bandleader Chick Webb, serving as his valet. In 1937, Blakey returned to Pittsburgh, forming his own band, teaming up with pianist Mary Lou Williams, under whose name the band performed.

From his Pittsburgh gig, Blakey made his way through the jazz world. In 1939, he began a three-year gig touring with Fletcher Henderson. After a year in Boston with a steady gig at the Tic Toc club, he joined the great Billy Eckstine, gigging with the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughn. It was in the late ’40s that Blakey formed his first Jazz Messengers band, a 17-piece big band.

Blakey’s driving rhythms and his incessant two and four beats on the high hat cymbals were readily identifiable from the outset and remained a constant throughout 35 years of Jazz Messengers bands. The songs produced from 1959 through the early 1960s became trademarks for the Messengers — including "Timmon’s Moanin’," "Golson’s Along Came Betty," "Blues March" and "Shorter’s Ping Pong." By this time, the Messengers had become a mainstay on the jazz club circuit and began recording on Blue Note Records. They began touring Europe, with forays into North Africa. In 1960, the Messengers became the first American jazz band to play in Japan for Japanese audiences. That first Japanese tour was a high point for the band. At the Tokyo airport, the band was greeted by hundreds of fans as "Blues March" played over their airport intercom and their visit was televised nationally.

At a time when many jazz musicians were experimenting with electronics and fusing their music with pop, the Messengers were a mainstay of straight-ahead jazz. Blakey’s steadfast belief in jazz music left him well positioned to take advantage of the music’s resurgence in the early ’80s. He had been working with musicians including trumpeter Valery Ponomarev, tenor Billy Pierce, alto saxman Bobby Watson and pianist James Williams.

Blakey died at the age of 71 after a career that spanned six of the best decades of jazz music. The messenger has moved on, but his message lives on in the music of the scores of sidemen whose careers he nurtured, the many other drummers he mentored and countless fans who have been blessed to hear the Messengers’ music.

— By Yawu Miller, Managing Editor, The Baystate Banner (Boston, MA)



George Benson laughing with Stevie Wonder at Billboards.


Born and raised in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, George Benson got his start playing ukulele at the age of 7. He actually got paid to perform at corner drug stores and even an unlicensed nightclub all before the age of 9. It was also during this time that he recorded his first songs, “She Makes Me Mad” and “It Should Have Been Me,” which were released on the RCA Victor record label. Benson’s music started to affect his school work, which actually led to him spending some time in a juvenile detention center. He would, however, go on to graduate from Schenley High School with a well-rounded ability to play instrumental jazz.

Benson would eventually lead his own group at the age of 21 and record his first album, “The New Guitar Boss.” He also released “It’s Uptown with the George Benson Quartet” and “The George Benson Cookbook” before being employed by Miles Davis in the mid 1960s. Perhaps most notably Benson was featured on Davis’ song “Paraphernalia” off his album “Miles in the Sky.” Later on, Benson signed with jazz label CTI Records and recorded several albums including “Bad Benson,” “Good King Bad” and Benson & Farrell,” which climbed to the top of the Billboard jazz chart and claimed top-three jazz sellers respectively. During his time at CTI, Benson also played on fellow Pittsburgher Stanley Turrentine’s critically acclaimed album “Sugar.”

In the mid to late '70s, Benson signed with Warner Bros. Records and released “Breezin'.” On the song “This Masquerade,” Benson stepped out of the box and sang lead vocals (a rarity for him) which ended up winning him a Grammy for Record of the Year. In 1976 he sang back-up and played guitar on Stevie Wonder’s song “Another Star.” Benson released his breakthrough album, “Give Me The Night,” in 1980 and had several hit singles including “Love All the Hurt Away,” “Turn Your Love Around,” “Inside Love,” “Lady Love Me,” “20/20,” “Shiver” and “Kisses in the Moonlight.”

More recently, Benson received two more Grammy Awards in 2007 for his songs “God Bless the Child” and “Mornin',” which won Best Traditional R&B Performance and Best Pop Instrumental Performance respectively. In 2009, Ibanez guitars released a special edition guitar in honor of its 30-year working relationship with Benson. He released another album in 2013, “Inspiration: A Tribute to Nat King Cole,” and later that year played the Rock in Rio festival, which celebrated 35 years since he played the inaugural festival. In 2018, he was featured on the Gorillaz's single “Humility” and announced that he was signing to a new record label, Mascot Label Group. To stay up to date with George Benson’s career visit



In this video Dr. Nelson Harrison talks about growing up and performing in Pittsburgh’s Golden Era of Jazz. Watch and listen as he talks about the importance of jazz and recounts run ins with jazz legends at the iconic Crawford Grill.



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