Friday, December 25, 2009

Dr. Nelson Harrison

Doctor Nelson Harrison

Hey, last week we featured one of the great jazz teachers and performers in Pittsburgh, Dr. Nathan Davis, a Kansas City transplant. Today we're sticking with the professional day job theme, but our guy is as Pittsburgh as the Steelers - Dr. Nelson Harrison.

He was born and raised in the East End. His schooling was at Crescent Elementary, Baxter Junior High, Westinghouse High (where he's a member of the Wall of Fame), and the University of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Harrison, now 69, began his musical career at the age of 13 as a trombonist and bandleader for the Beethoven Bebops 7-piece jazz/dance combo. At the same time, he played for the Junior Pittsburgh Symphony and the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony.

As a Bulldog, he took private trombone lessons under Carl G. McVicker, Sr., the famous band teacher at the 'House, and Matthew Shiner of Duquesne University in the late fifties.

Don't let the classical background fool ya; Harrison didn't end up a longhair by any means. Since the early 1960's, he's gigged with local jazz and R & B groups.

He started playing with bands like the Joe Westray Orchestra, Sonny Gilmer and the Premiers, the Walt Harper Quintet (he recorded "Live at the Attic" with them in 1969), and the Nathan Davis Quintet (he recorded "Makatuka" in 1970 and "Suite for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr." in 1971 with Davis).

Want some more Pittsburgh music mavens Harrison backed at one time or another? How about Billy Eckstine, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Kenny "Klook" Clarke, Art Blakey, Stanley "Sugar Man" Turrentine, Sam Johnson, Joe Harris, J.C. Moses, Dakota Staton, Lena Horne, and Grover Mitchell?

As a session trombonist, Nelson was a member of the Heinz Hall and Stanley Theatre Stage Orchestras accompanying national acts like Bobby Vinton, Liberace, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ginger Rogers, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Jack Jones, Michele LeGrande, Mel Torme, Perry Como, Nancy Wilson, Melba Moore, Glenn Campbell, and Slide Hampton.

He also played shows with Nelson Riddle and the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops and for several Civic Light Opera productions, along with shows with Marvin Hamlisch and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans (and North Side). What, no KISS?

He's still active in the local club scene. Harrison sits with the Roger Humphries Big Band, Spirit on the Hill, The Blues Orphans, Bill Dell & Wee Jams, Swing Fever, Gary Rican & the Studio-E Band, The Hard Groove Project, and his own bands The World According to Bop, Jazz ‘N Jive, Blue to the Bone, Nelson Harrison & Associates, and Dr. Jazz & the Salty Dawgs. From doo-wop to dixieland, the Doctor has a place to play what he feels.

Harrison has had his share of studio time lately. Recordings he's on from the past few years include "Tuesday Night at James Street" with the RH Factor; "Don’t Give Up" with the Roger Humphries Big Band; "Moonlit River" with songs by Fred Moolten; "21st-Century Musicism" featuring compositions by Karlton E. Hester; "If I Can’t Dance, It’s Not My Revolution" with folkie Anne Feeney; "Schism ‘n Blues" & "Root Rot" with the americana Blues Orphans; and "Not from Concentrate" & "Harmonique" with Genie Walker.

And he isn't just a busy local player. Harrison accompanied some big-league soul acts in his day, like Dionne Warwick, James Brown, The Supremes, The Temptations, Mary Wells, Aretha Franklin, and Little Stevie Wonder.

In fact, he expanded his wings for a while. Nelson gained a wide reputation as a New Orleans-style, Dixieland pianist when he tickled the keys with the Boilermaker Jazz Band from 1991-98. The band hit the international jazz festival circuit, and he's on four albums with them, "On A Coconut Island," "Don't Give Up the Ship," "Burgundy Street Blues," and "Honky Tonk Town."

Harrison has performed at festivals in New Orleans, London, Edinburg, Sacramento, New York City, and Seattle. He's given clinics and lectures in Santa Cruz, San Jose, Quebec City, Montreal, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York and Toronto.

He might be best known, though, for playing with the Count Basie Orchestra between 1978-81, touring the US and Japan with vocalists Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan, Helen Humes, Joe Turner, Eddie Vinson, and Dennis Rowland. He's on their LP "Kansas City Shout."

But hey, idle hands and all...and Harrison's never been accused of having a pair of those. He charts arrangements for local groups and recording sessions, written over 300 original compositions spanning the full range of jazz, pop, fusion, rock, jingles, blues, ballads and kiddie songs. Harrison's the lyricist for 125 published bop tunes, too, by last count.

He produced an original score for the road show of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," for the Kuntu Repertory Theatre in 1987. Other scores of his are featured in movies by Georg Sanford Brown and John Russo, and plays by Richard Wright and Rob Penny.

Harrison was the musical director for WQED-TV's award winning "Black Horizons Show," and the on-air host of "Jazz Pittsburgh," an hour-long National Public Radio series produced by WDUQ-FM. He appeared in the TV movie "The Temptations," and is featured on Science and the Outer Streams, a live web cast on "The Metaphysics of Music."

Dr. Harrison is also known as the ultimate historian of Pittsburgh jazz. He served as the project advisor for WDUQ's "Steel City Legacy," which focused on the lives of Pittsburgh musical legends Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine and Billy Strayhorn.

In addition, he's a contributing partner with the Afro-Centric curriculum for jazz and the "Living Encyclopedia of Global African Music" that includes a Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy project as a component.

He's the founder and online host of The Pittsburgh Jazz Network, a web-based who's who of Pittsburgh boppers.

Harrison formed the first All-City High School Jazz Orchestra for the
Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. He organized an international cultural exchange tour in Pittsburgh and Texas for the Krakow Youth Jazz Ensemble. The doc has had a hand in putting together segments of the Three Rivers Art Festival and Mellon Jazz Festival.

The good doctor has enough honors to strain a fair-sized high school trophy case, including the East Liberty Gallery of Stars, the Walt Harper All That Jazz Award, the Legacy Arts Project Keepers of the Flame Award, the Manchester Craftsmen Guild Jazz Pittsburgh Legends of Jazz Award, and his latest, this year's African American Council on the Arts Rob Penny Lifetime Achievement Award.

And as a side bar, he's an inventor, too. He come up with the horn he's now famed for blowing, the "Trombetto from the Ghetto," as he calls it. It's a brass piece with four valves that plays a range of six octaves with a trombone mouthpiece. The instrument is kinda a cross between a French Horn and a Flugelhorn, and looks like a burnished pretzel.

Did we mention his day job? Dr. Nelson Harrison received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1974. Along with delivering his musical chops, he's also a college lecturer, business consultant and in-demand speaker on “The Creative Mind” and “The Metaphysics of Music.”

As Doctor Harrison said "A mentor once told me that a person needs a profession and a trade. Art is my trade and psychology has been my profession. I can boldly say that every scientific theory I was taught through Ph.D. level has since been proven wrong. Art is never wrong. Music metaphor for life." Amen.

"This Christmas" - December 7, 2009 at the AVA Lounge, Nelson Harrison on trombetto

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dr. Nathan Davis...Jazz Is The Cure

nathan davis
Nathan Davis from The Pitt Chronicle

Nathan Tate Davis, 72, was born in Kansas City, not far from the childhood home of Charlie Parker. He first took up the tenor sax in high school after starting out on trombone, and was soon playing some local gigs.

After Davis graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in music education, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1960 and sent to Germany, where he toured with an army band. He grew to like Europe and its opportunity for jazzmen, and when he left the Army in 1963, he stayed across the Atlantic.

Davis played hard bop with some other ex-pats, and Kenny Clarke heard him honking in Berlin and invited Davis to join him in Paris at the club St. Germain des Pres. He blew his sax with Clarke for seven years. Erroll Garner and the MJQ sat in with them, and he played with Woody Shaw, Donald Byrd, Art Taylor, Ray Charles, and Eric Dolphy.

In 1965, the saxophonist got a call to work as Wayne Shorter's replacement with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on a European tour. At the end of the gig Blakey asked Davis to return stateside with the band. But his daughter had just arrived, and he was happy raising his family on Paris' Left Bank; the answer was "no". Blakey said that Davis was the only musician in America who ever turned him down.

Davis did come home eventually. In 1969, at the urging of Donald Byrd and Dave Baker, he joined the University of Pittsburgh as director of the first full-time, accredited jazz studies program in the nation. He planned to play it by ear during his first three-year contract with Pitt; forty years later, he's still here.

It's sorta ironic. He made a home in Europe because he wanted a chance to play instead of coming back to teach. Que sera, sera.

Pitt's not his only educator gig. He's a past director of the Thelonious Monk Institute Summer Program in Aspen Colorado, spent five years teaching sax at Ohio's Oberlin College, and since 2002, he's been a director & faculty member of the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program, based out of the Kennedy Center.

During his Pitt tenure, he's founded the annual Jazz Seminar and Concert, established a Jazz Hall of Fame, and developed the Jazz Outreach Programs in Dubai, Ghana, Bahia, and Jordan. The program he put together is a model for schools around the country.

Davis found time to earn his doctorate in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan, paid for by the GI Bill. His dissertation was "The Life and Music of Charlie Parker and the Kansas City Environment." Meanwhile, he still performed and recorded a handful of albums as a band leader.

He played with the Charlie Mingus All-Star Band at the Kool Jazz Festival, in Saratoga, New York, in 1982.

In 1985 he got back together with Woody Shaw to form the Paris Reunion Band, an all-star aggregation that included Johnny Griffin, Joe Henderson, Nat Adderley and Slide Hampton.

They broke up after seven years when Shaw passed away, but not before they took their show on the road to Scandinavia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, England, France and Switzerland.

In the 1990s, he formed the band Roots, with brother saxmen Arthur Blythe, Chico Freeman and Sam Rivers, followed by Benny Golson. They toured Scandinavia, Greece, Italy, Spain, Germany, Holland, England, France and Switzerland. Guess Davis never quite got over that European thingie.

He played the Blue Note in New York with Dizzy Gillespie and toured as part of The Three Tenors with Grover Washington, Jr. and James Moody.

His discography includes "The Hip Walk," "Peace Treaty," "Happy Girl," "Rules of Freedom," "Makatuka," "Sixth Sense In The Eleventh House," "If," "London by Night," "Faces Of Love," "I'm A Fool To Want You," "The Other Side of the Morning - Dedicated to Eric Dolphy," "Live: Jazz at Pitt: The 25th Anniversary Concert," and 2009's "The Best Of Nathan Davis '65-76."

Good luck finding many of them, though, especially his European tracks. Most were printed by small labels with limited runs, and a couple weren't even released. So putting together a Davis collection is quite the challenge.

His ex-pat buds were hot items when they returned to the states. But when he chose an academic track, the labels treated him as if he didn't exist, even though Davis' playing was as hot as ever. Their loss, and unfortunately, ours too.

Davis has also penned "Writings in Jazz" and "African American Music in Society," while founding and editing the "International Jazz Archives Journal." He's also had a book written about him, Gisela Albus' "Paris to Pittsburgh, a Story in Jazz, the Life of Nathan Davis."

Hey, Pittsburgh was once called "The Foundry of Jazz." Many of its great performers began here and left for greener pastures. Somehow, it seems fitting that the City has claimed a sax man from Kansas City to keep the tradition alive.

Nathan Davis - "Stick Buddy" from the album "If" - 1976

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Funk Brother Bob Babbitt

bob babbitt
Bob Babbitt

Few bassists have played on as many hits as Funk Brother Bob Babbitt. Over a career spanning five decades, the 6'2" Mt. Washington native with the offensive lineman’s build has earned 25 gold and platinum records and has played on more than 200 top Forty hits.

Oddly, none of his 25 gold and platinum records were from his Motown body of work, because the label didn’t give out gold records. Berry Gordy, Jr. believed his corporate structure, not the artists, created the hits. Who knows what his count would be with those tunes to his credit?

Born Robert Kreiner to Hungarian parents in Pittsburgh, Babbitt was heavily influenced by the gypsy music he heard in his home.

He started his career when he received classical training on upright bass. His seventh grade choir teacher got him started on the instrument, and Babbitt played for three years in the Pittsburgh Symphony's Junior Orchestra.

Babbitt began performing at age 15, and after hearing an electric bass live at a nightclub for the first time two years later, he saw the light and traded in his upright for a Fender.

Like most local players, he was inspired by the R&B sounds throbbing from Pittsburgh jocks like Porky with music like Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk" and Red Prysock's "Hand Clappin'."

His father died during his senior year in high school, and the family moved to the Glen Hazel projects. Babbitt passed up a music scholarship to Pitt to look for a job. But his 9-5 gigs didn't pay much, and he didn't want to end up in the steel mills.

An uncle in Detroit offered to help him find work. Babbitt moved there in the mid-1950s, and worked for an aluminum plant and a construction outfit.

A year or so after arriving, he hooked up with the Royaltones, a gritty instrumental combo that made waves in the Motor City club scene, charting a handful of records including a Top Ten hit, "Flamingo Express."

They caught the attention of Del Shannon, who hired the Royaltones as his touring and recording band through 1965. They backed Shannon's smash "Little Town Flirt."

Babbitt began to make a name for himself. He first met some of Motown’s Funk Brothers, including bass legend James Jamerson, who he would later replace, while working at Golden World studio.

He sat in at nearly every Detroit studio except Motown's Hitsville, backing songs like “I Just Wanna Testify” (Parliaments), “Love Makes the World Go Round” (Dion Jackson), "Agent Double 0 Soul" (Edwin Starr), "With This Ring" (Platters); and “Cool Jerk” (Capitols).

Live dates with Stevie Wonder finally brought Babbitt into Motown’s Hitsville studio in 1967 (it helped that Motown bought Golden World studios); his first session for the label was Wonder’s cover of the Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”

He went on to back “Touch Me in the Morning,” (Diana Ross) “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” (Stevie Wonder); “Smiling Faces” & "Ball of Confusion" (Temptations); “War” (Edwin Starr); “Tears of a Clown” (Smokey Robinson); Gladys Knight & The Pips' “Midnight Train To Georgia” and many other Motown hits. Most famously, Babbitt laid the bass lines for “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner City Blues” for Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece "What’s Goin’ On."

His stay with the Funk Brothers was sometimes rocky. Babbitt often replaced James Jamerson, the band's troubled but brilliant bassist. Occasionally, Jamerson would stop by the studio to watch Babbitt play in his spot; once with a gun stuck in his waistband.

But they ended up getting along just fine, and the Funk Brother's came to accept him as, well, a brother. But the band and Motown always had a contentious relationship, and when the label decided to do most of its studio work in LA, the Funk Brothers gave it up and scattered with the wind.

Babbitt moved to New York in 1973 and did dates and sessions with artists such as Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Jim Croce, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Engelbert Humperdink, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Sinatra and Gladys Knight & the Pips. Songs he backed were “I Got a Name” (Jim Croce); "Indiana Wants Me" (R. Dean Taylor); and “Midnight Train to Georgia” (Gladys Knight & the Pips).

It expanded his music world. He said "Playing in New York forced me to learn a lot of different styles, because there was so much going on there. I started checking out rock bands like Aerosmith, Edgar Winter, and The Who, particularly what John Entwistle did on 'My Generation' and 'Magic Bus,' which knocked me out."

The variety of acts he supported didn't just widen his repertoire; it made him slightly nuts. "I was recording with so many different artists in so many different styles, I didn't know which end was up. I remember cutting three complete albums in three weeks at one point. The first was with the Spinners out in L.A.; then came an Alice Cooper record in Toronto; then I did Sinatra in New York."

He also worked in Philadelphia during this period, playing on Spinners classics such as “Then Came You,” “Games People Play,” and “Rubberband Man" at the City of Brotherly Love's famous Sigma Sound Studio. Babbitt also backed Deniece Williams on her hit "It's Gonna Take A Miracle," produced by Thom Bell.

But the heyday of the star session man had peaked. In the early 1980s, Babbitt gave up album work in favor of commercial jingles and a jaunt into jazz, touring and recording with Herbie Mann and the Hill District's Stanley Turrentine.

He moved on to Nashville, with its R&B, country, and gospel markets. He did a few sessions with Louise Mandrell, Carlene Carter, and other country artists, plus some demo jobs.

Babbitt toured with Joan Baez and Brenda Lee. When he's not on the road, he plays with a local R&B band called Lost In Detroit, featuring Dennis Locorriere, who was the lead singer for Dr. Hook. He was in Philly, doing a Bobby Rydell compilation. Babbitt backed Elton John's 2009 album, "Are You Ready For Love?"

He also appears with the Funk Brothers when they gig, including during their 2007 North American tour. The musicians got a huge boost in 2002 from producer Paul Justman's documentary "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," based on Allan Slutsky's book.

Supported by a dynamite two-CD soundtrack and DVD version, it took off, along with the cred of the Funk Brothers. Babbitt was interviewed and featured prominently in the film. In 2004, the FBs were awarded a Life Time Achievement Grammy.

And as an acknowledged master of his instrument, Babbitt is in constant demand in the industry for his technical skills; he's maybe the top teacher in the bass biz.

The seventy-something Babbitt's last visit to his hometown was on October 31st, for "A Pittsburgh Tribute to Motown Records' 50th Anniversary," at the August Wilson Center. Before that, Babbitt visited on July 23, 2008, at Duquesne University's "Summertime Jazz With Soul" where he played and spoke at a seminar.

He also participated in the annual Rockin’ Christmas Fund charity fund-raiser, a holiday concert that benefited needy children.

Babbitt was diagnosed in early 2011 with an inoperable brain tumor, on on February 4th, 2013, he passed away in Nashville at the age of 74.

But his music lives on. Every time you hear the classic bass lines of later Motown that a guy from Mt. Washington was probably laying them down.

"Ball of Confusion" - Temptations (1970)

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sir Walter

John "Sir Walter Raleigh" Christian from Poise Foundation

Losing WAMO wasn't bad enough. Now a monument to Pittsburgh's early R&B history, John Christian, has left us, too. Sir Walter Raleigh passed away after a long illness last weekend at the age of 92.

He was born in Virginia on March 1, 1917, and raised in Binghamton, New York. Christian attended Virginia State University, and graduated with a degree in education. Always athletic, he went on to play semi-pro baseball for the Newark Eagles.

Christian planned to trek to California in 1951 to make a name for himself, with a new set of wheels and some cash in his pocket, but he didn't get very far. He ended up in Steubenville, Ohio, where his mother lived, and eventually opened an appliance shop. And those Maytags and Amanas would soon unwittingly launch him on his media career.

His store was the only black-owned appliance shop in town, and he'd advertise on East Liberty's WILY to draw some customers, calling in his spots. One day, the station manager heard his dramatic basso profundo voice over the phone and offered him a job on the spot.

Hey, spin damp clothes or wax? That was a no brainer. In 1955, Christian came east to the Steel City, twirling disks at WILY. There he joined Lee "3-D Lee D" Dorris and Bill Powell. The trio became the original godfathers of soul for the black audiences of Pittsburgh.

He needed an airwave persona, and because of his deep and cultured pipes, Time Magazine dubbed him "Sir Walter Raleigh" in 1957. Christian liked it, and took to wearing fancy duds, a derby and a monocle, generally immersing himself in Sir Walter-ness.

1957 marked another big event - Christian joined WAMO, which had just purchased Homestead's WHOD. His morning show featured smooth R&B, often by unknown soul artists, and he greeted his listeners with the intro “Sir Walter Raleigh, the gent with the accent.”

Porky Chedwick was already there, and in 1960 Bill Powell jumped ship, too, and they became the holy trinity of Pittsburgh radio jocks to the area's hep cats, white and black, in the early sixties.

But the era of jock-driven radio soon passed, and ad-driven formats pushing top-40 sounds replaced their hand-picked playlists. It was time for a change.

In 1970, Christian switched media and began a long career as a newscaster, producer, and talk show host for WPXI-TV (then WIIC), where he, Dee Thompson, Bev Smith, and Della Crews became city pacesetters as black TV personalities. Christian also served as Channel 11's local conscience, letting the suits know when the station let Pittsburgh's black community down.

He retired from WPXI in 1992 after 22 years of TV work. But he wouldn't sit still; Sir Walter still had deeds to do.

Christian was a dedicated jogger and tennis player, and later on, he became an avid golfer. He turned that hobby into an annual charity golf tournament. His John Christian Charity Golf Classic has raised $300,000 for local charities since its inception in the eighties.

But that's all in the past now. As the poet Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:
"The flowers do fade, and wanton fields
To wayward winter reckoning yields."

Rest in peace, Sir Walter.