Wednesday, February 13, 2008

bulldog boogie

Westinghouse Wall of Fame from Pittsburgh Post Gazette

If you're ever in Homewood, visit Westinghouse's Wall of Fame. It seems like there are about a zillion alums from the 'House that honored its' halls by helping make Pittsburgh a more vibrant city, in many ways and in many fields. The musicians on the wall read like a who's who:

• Al Aarons -- performed with Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones and Frank Sinatra
• Hal Brown 'HB' -- WAMO deejay
• Gerald 'Jerry' Byrd -- performed with Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff
• Sally Cosgrove & Bill Thompson -- dancers
• Frank Cunimondo -- composer/keyboard
• Erroll Garner -- jazz pianist
• Linton Garner -- performed with Billy Eckstine and Erroll Garner, his younger brother
• Nelson Harrison -- Ph.D., composer, performed with Count Basie
• Ahmad Jamal -- jazz musician
• Claude Jay -- gospel recording artist
• James 'Sunny' Kelsey -- WAMO
• The LaRells -- late 1950s group, recorded "Everybody Knew"
• Grover Mitchell -- conductor with Count Basie orchestra
• Art Nance -- performed with Count Basie
• Birdie Nichols -- "Glorious Rebirth"
• Paul Ross -- Violinist Paul Ross was the first African-American musician to become a full member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Paul Ross had a vision wherein people of all races and walks of life could gather together in the service of great music. He made it happen, and that is how he lived his life.
• Wyatt Ruther -- performed with Count Basie, Erroll Garner and Lena Horne
• Dakota Staton -- jazz singer, performed on "Late, Late Show"
• Billy Strayhorn -- composed the "A Train" worked with Duke Ellington
• Adam Wade -- singer, actor and first black to host a game show
• Mary Lou Williams -- piano prodigy; composed masses for the Pope, worked with Duke Ellington

A couple of these names really stand out in music history.

Erroll Garner began playing piano at the age of 3. He was self-taught and remained an "ear player" all his life, as he never bothered to learn how to read music. All he had to do was hear it. At the age of 7, Garner began appearing on radio station KDKA with a group called the Candy Kids, and by 11 he was playing on riverboat cruises. Five years later he joined 'Burgh saxophonist Leroy Brown.

He played locally in the shadow of his older brother Linton, also a pianist and on the WOF, and moved to the Big Apple. There he jammed with Charlie Parker on the famous Cool Blues session. Short in stature but long on ego, Garner used to perform perched high atop a Manhattan phone book. He would often start his songs with a strange mix of notes that in no way suggested the upcoming tune. That trademark opening jam left his audience on the edge of their seats trying to figure out what song he was leading into. It was a great live hook.

Garner had a well deserved international reputation in jazz, and until his death in 1977, he toured the world making his music while still producing a huge volume of recorded work. He's buried in Homewood Cemetery.

Billy Strayhorn is another world class musician. If you are familiar with the song "Take the A Train," then you've probably heard of its' composer, Billy "Sweet Pea" Strayhorn. He joined Duke Ellington's band in 1939, at the age of twenty-two. Ellington was intrigued by his potential and took this shy but talented pianist under his wing. Neither one was sure exactly where Strayhorn would fit in with the band at the start, but they knew that their musical talents complimented each other quite well. By the end of the year Strayhorn had made himself indispensable to the Duke Ellington Band, arranging, composing, and sitting in at the keyboard.

Some of Strayhorn's compositions are: "Chelsea Bridge," "Day Dream," "Johnny Come Lately," "Rain-check", and "Clementine." The pieces most frequently played are Ellington's theme song, "Take the A Train" and the Duke's signatory, "Lotus Blossom". Some suites on which he collaborated with Ellington are: "Deep South Suite," 1947; the "Shakespearean Suite" or "Such Sweet Thunder," 1957; an arrangement of the "Nutcracker Suite," 1960; and the "Peer Gynt Suite," 1962. He and Ellington composed the "Queen's Suite" and gave the only pressing to Queen Elizabeth. Two of their suites, "Jump for Joy," 1950 and "My People," 1963 had as their themes the struggles and triumphs of blacks in the United States.

Billy Strayhorn died of cancer in 1967. Duke Ellington's response to his death was to record what the critics cite as one of his greatest works, a collection titled "And His Mother Called Him Bill," consisting entirely of Strayhorn's compositions.

And we can't forget Ahmad Jamal, born as Frederick Russell Jones (he changed it later, after converting to Islam). He started playing piano at the age of three and began his formal training as a seven year old with Mary Cardwell Dawson, who greatly influenced him.

His first album, Ahmad's Blues, was recorded in 1951. Following that release, he and his trio worked as the house band at Chi-town's Pershing Hotel. Then they released the live album But Not for Me which stayed on the Ten Best-Selling charts for 108 weeks. Jamal's big hit and juke box favorite Poinciana was from this album.

He was one of Mile Davis' favorite pianists and was a key influence on the trumpeter's "First Great Quintet" with John Coltrane. Jamal received the National Endowment of the Art's American Jazz Masters award and also named a Duke Ellington Fellow at Yale University.

It's said that his pianos need to be tuned between every set because of the pounding he lays on the keys. Since the 1980s, Jamal has been earning his daily bread by touring the U.S. clubs and European jazz festivals with his trio. He's popular in R&B circles, too. Jamal's recorded on both the Motown and Atlantic labels, and had at least ten of his songs sampled in hip-hop and soul tracks.

If you dig jazz, you know that there's no school in Pittsburgh that teaches its' kids to tickle the ivories better than the 'House. The Bulldog Wall of Fame and be-bop fans around the world know that Westinghouse turns out more than great football players. The pianists ain't half bad either.

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