Saturday, November 7, 2009

Kenny Fisher

Kenny Fisher image from the New Pittsburgh Courier

Kenny Fisher may not have been an everyday name to current music fans in Pittsburgh, but to players in the Steel City's jazz scene, the 69 year-old was a bridge to the golden age.

The self-taught tenor saxman (he also played flute, clarinet, recorder, and composed) died a couple of weeks ago from cancer, and with him went a page from Pittsburgh's jazz history.

Fisher grew up in the Hill and went to Weil Elementary and Schenley High. As a teen, he would hang outside the Crawford Grill with his buds, listening to the likes of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, peeking in the back window to catch the acts.

“Fish” was a throwback to the days when the Three Rivers was a blues hot spot. He played the late great club circuit, places like the Loendi Club, the Hurricane, the Crawford Grill, the Too Sweet Lounge, Mason's Bar, the Homewood Bar, Gail's Lounge, and the Diplomat Lounge, while perfecting his licks at the Musician Unions' Club.

He fronted the Kenny Fisher Quintet, made up of Jesse Kemp (piano), Wade Powell (trumpet), Tony Fountain (percussion), and Howard Russell (bass).

The KFQ toured Europe and the Caribbean in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and scored regular dates in the Big Apple and California. After the band broke up, Fisher went to DC and gigged with Max Roach.

Then it was back home to stay, and he became much more involved in the area's jazz community than just honkin' at the local venues.

Fisher played at the African-American Jazz Festival, was noted in the book "Pittsburgh Jazz" by John Brewer, and received an award from the Legacy Arts Project. He also was a member of Nathan Davis' Pitt Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Orchestra. Fish was a regular at Pitt's jazz seminars.

For decades, Fisher taught the sax, clarinet, flute and recorder to hundreds of children, teenagers and adults at the Homewood Carnegie Library on Saturdays and evenings for the Jazz Workshop.

He and the other instructors often gave free lessons - their version of scholarships - to kids who couldn't afford the $65 tuition, in trade for chores such as emptying waste baskets or making copies. They knew that a little discipline and structure goes a long way not only in music, but in life, too.

Fisher was a recognized elder statesman and mentor for Pittsburgh's jazz legacy. Why so little love for Fish's work?

It's probably a combination of Fisher's quiet nature, the years gone since he was regularly performing at the clubs, and the fact that even though they busted down the doors to see him live on-stage, he never recorded. Plus, of course, staying and playing in Pittsburgh for the past four decades tends to put a bucket over one's light, too.

But hey, at Wilkinsburg's Mt. Gilead Church, he was escorted to the afterlife with a celebration befitting a jazz king. There were performances throughout the service, and he was taken to his rest at Greenwood Cemetery accompanied by a New Orleans "funeral with music" done up Pittsburgh-style.

Among the luminaries to see Fish off were Roger Humphries, Dr. Nelson Harrison, and Tim Stevens.

Kenny Fisher is now reunited with his love, Jeannette, who passed away in 2001. And he doesn't have to be a back door man to catch Coltrane; he's sitting in with him.

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