Saturday, January 22, 2011

Walt Harper

Walt Harper

Hey, Pittsburgh has been home to some of the world's greatest jazz players. And a lot of them have stayed home to play their music, too many to mention. But the guy that's arguably the most synonymous with jazz in the City may be none other than Walt Harper.

Harper was a jazz pianist, club owner, recording artist and producer while living in his hometown of Pittsburgh throughout virtually all of his sixty year musical journey.

He was born on July 3rd, 1926, the sixth of eight children. His dad Charles owned a home contracting and building business while his mom Lucinda was a homemaker with her own home-based beauty shop located on Clarissa Street in Schenley Heights, a middle-class neighborhood in the Upper Hill.

Harper didn't take to hammers and saws (or curlers, for that matter), but he did show an early interest in music. His parents were supportive as they were with all the kids, and his brothers Ernie and Nate ended up pretty fair musicians, too.

Ernie was a pianist and Nate a tenor saxophonist who would one day join his brother Walt's quartet. Walt credited older bro Ernie, who became a jazz fixture in Chicago, with being his earliest musical influence on the piano. Ernie was already playing piano around Pittsburgh with young drummer Art Blakey, a fair jazz player himself.

Harper went to Oakland's Schenley High School as did two of his best friends, bassist Ray Brown and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, the Sugar Man. Harper played valve trombone in the all-city band, but switched to piano. He was also a member of the Swinging Five, a jazz group he founded with Brown.

As teenagers, Harper and Brown would shoot hooky and go across town to Homewood and Errol Garner's house to listen to him play the piano. Garner would have music scores piled on the keyboards; the school-skipping pair never realized that he couldn't read music and was playing by ear.

After graduating from high school in 1947, he studied at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute and the University of Pittsburgh for a couple of years. 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 like Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and George Shearing. But Harper never took to the road and came back home to stay.

Harper built a following by playing fraternity gigs and the tri-state area college circuit. Early on in his local career, he picked up the nickname "The Prom King" because his band played so many high school and college dates.

He was equally popular at the Mt. Lebanon High School as he was at the House, and throughout his playing days would entertain a racially mixed audience. In fact, the Courier's Teenie Harris photo collection shows white teens dancing to Harper's tune in the fifties.

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 fifties and sixties. The same fraternity guys and high school kids that he played for earlier followed him in droves to the Crawford.

At the same time, he began producing jazz festivals at the Hilton Hotel Ballroom in the early 1960s, selling out concerts by Carmen McRae, Chico Hamilton and the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

Later in the decade, he joined forces with the Catholic Youth Organization in producing larger festivals at the Civic Arena, featuring the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Thelonius Monk, Cannonball Adderley, the John Coltrane Quartet, and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra with Joe Williams among other acts.

Harper remained at the Crawford until 1969 when he opened his own club, Walt Harper's Attic, downtown in Market Square up a flight of stairs above a State store. Don't laugh; it ended up the perfect spot for a club.

He did a lot of his own work. First, there was no problem with generating goodwill with the City's jazz fans. He had a photographic memory, remembered names, even if he hadn't seen someone for years, and had a big smile for one and all. Plus he started with that built-in cadre of followers from the Crawford.

And he wasn't afraid to do a little personal tub-thumping. Harper made his rounds in those early days, personally delivering his publicity blurbs and photos to the newspaper desks each week.

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 Turrentine and Brown graced the Attic.

He would pay those cats to improvise, while Harper, from his piano stool, led his band and played mainstream, get-down-and-boogie jazz jams between sets. A couple of his more popular tunes were "I'll Drink to That" and "It's My Pleasure," but there's no question that his signature song was "Satin Doll," a tune he played so often that many Pittsburghers thought he, not Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, wrote the tune.

During the first year of operation, Harper had the doormen keep a count of the Attic customers coming up the stairs. They totaled more than 250,000, many of them repeat visits, and it was nothing to see a line snaking around the block to get into the club. And many were well known folk like Terry Bradshaw, L.C. Greenwood and Connie Hawkins, adding some cachet to the joint.

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.

The Club drew corporate and politco clientele in keeping with Harper's desire to move jazz from the back rooms to the mainstream.

Among the musicians featured at both of Harper's clubs were: Cannonball Adderley, Max Roach, Nancy Wilson, Mel Tormé, Wynton Marsalis, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Joe Williams, George Shearing, Carmen McCrae and Lionel Hampton; there were many others.

Harper found that the days of the downtown clubs were ending. It was just too hard to put together a business model to cover building and appearance expenses, and he pulled the plug on the Jazz Club in 1988.

And hey, it's not like he couldn't use the time off from the club hamster wheel. He honed his tennis game, and became one of the top celebrity players in the area, achy knees and all. Try doing that while you're running a club by day and a band by night.

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)...oh, and he had that Steeler gig, too.

In the seventies, Harper and his group "All That Jazz" were hired by the Rooneys to play as the house band for the Steeler home games, a job they held until 2002. Ya think Three Rivers Stadium was a big enough room for the showman?

"Walt Harper at Fallingwater," filmed at the Kaufmann Home which was designed by Frank Lloyd-Wright, was aired nationally on WQED/PBS in 1975, and Harper was nominated for a local Emmy award for his performance.

Harper recorded four CD’s on his own Birmingham label with his lifelong friend Ray Brown. They were "West Coast On Line," produced by Ray Brown with arrangements by John Clayton; "Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You," co-produced with Ray Brown and John Clayton; "In Very Good Company" with Ray Brown, Stanley Turrentine and Cecil Brooks III, and "Be My Guest" with Ray Brown and Stanley Turrentine.

Earlier in his career Harper recorded several other albums, "Eddie Jefferson With the Walt Harper Quintet," "Night Thoughts," "Walt Harper at Fallingwater," "Live at the Attic," "On the Road," "The College Jazz Beat," and "Harper's Ferry."

Heck, while we were searching we also found a bit of LP vinyl called "Open Pantry Presents Christmas Eve With Walt Harper" from 1974, which brings us up to an even dozen records for the jazzman.

He was recognized for his work with a variety of awards and honors. Harper was named as the 2006 Musician’s Union Man of the Year Award; was a recipient of the 2004 Harry Schwab Excellence in the Arts Award, and in 2001, he received the Mellon Jazz Community Award for his contributions to the jazz community. Harper was also posthumously recognized by Pittsburgh City Council, and The Legacy apartments across from the Crawford Grill building feature his mural inside along with the other jazz greats from the City.

Harper, who resided in Point Breeze, went to his reward suddenly on October 25th, 2006. He suffered a reported heart attack and died en route to UPMC Shadyside. He was 80 years old at the time (and he probably hated that his true age finally came out; he was famous for knocking five years or a decade off the years he spent on this mortal coil).

Active until the end, Harper was fully booked for the following year at jazz halls in Pittsburgh and the surrounding area. Harper is survived by his wife, Maggie Harper, and his only daughter from his first marriage, Sharynn Harper, a New York based writer/independent producer.

The Walt Harper Jazz Music Education Fund was established in Harper's memory to recognize youth (particularly in the Pittsburgh area) who show outstanding talent and promise in the jazz field.

Walt Harper and Kenny Blake - "The Real Thing"

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