Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Chuck Austin: Keeper & Mainstay Of Pittsburgh Jazz History

Chuck Austin from Pittsburgh Musicians Union

Chuck Austin could play that horn.

A trumpeter who could blow jazz, big band, blues or soul equally sweet, Austin worked with Dakota Staton, Paul Williams, Ruby Younge (in 1953, the trio opened the Hurricane Lounge), Joe Westray (on brass player & later judge Warren Watson's recommendation), The Apollos (with Art Nance, Spider Lindsey, Doc Miller and Horace Parlan), Rogers Humphreys, Jack Purcell, George Gee Orchestra, Balcony Big Band, 'Burgh Big Band and OPEK.

He also backed some of the biggest names in music. Austin appeared with Lloyd Price on The Ed Sullivan Show (he also toured & recorded with him on the LP "Personality" after being hired on Hill trombonist Sam Hurt's word), Count Basie's last concert at the Savoy Ball Room on Centre Avenue in the Hill, Diana Ross at the Civic Arena and Liza Minnelli at Heinz Hall.

As a member of the Stanley Theater pit band, he played sweet soul music behind headliners like Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, James Brown and The Temptations. Austin turned down a gig with The Ray Charles Revue in the sixties because he was tired of touring and wanted to stay home with his family.

That decision may have cost him a chance at the big time. Austin never did get on vinyl as a lead man, hidden in the brass section of bands or as a sideman. He had to hold a day job with his cleaning company to keep his clan fed and weekends free for music. But it paid big dividends for the local scene.

Always known as a true gentleman among brother players, Austin was a member and mentor of Local 471, the black musicians' union where he met running bud Stanley Turrentine. Not only did he hone his chops while jamming at the hall, but he helped the younger guys on their career road.

After the white Local #60 took in #471 in 1966 at the national union's prodding, Austin served as an ex-facto rep to the black players who didn't feel they were getting a very fair shake in the new set-up. Since 2003, he's served officially as a board member of the Pittsburgh Musician's Union 60-147.

The black union's demise led to Austin's tour de force, The African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh, established in 1996 to save the history of jazz, blues and gospel musicians in the City. Austin was one of the founders and long time president.

The organization produces shows, a newsletter, collaborations with other artistic fields like dance and poetry, education programming, books and A/V presentations. One of the primary tools was an Austin-led effort to tape the oral histories of local jazz greats. They have about 75 completed now, stored at University of Pittsburgh Archives as part of the American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh Oral History Project.

In a turnabout-is-fair-play bit of justice, Austin's remembrances were recorded as part of the Smithsonian Jazz and Manchester Craftsman Guild Jazz Oral History Project. A portion of his interview recalling his upbringing is on youtube under "Chuck Austin Final." (see below)

While Austin, who began by playing at his hometown Ben Avon Elementary School band, swam in the small Pittsburgh pool (he later moved to the Hill), there's no denying he was a big fish in local waters. He's a member of the Pittsburgh Jazz Society Hall of Fame, was named as a Pittsburgh Jazz Legend by the Manchester Craftsman's Guild, and was honored by The City of Pittsburgh in 2011 when City Council proclaimed Chuck Austin Day.

Austin passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer in the early hours of Saturday at the Aspinwall Veterans Administration hospice at the age of 84. His going away ceremony will be held tomorrow at the Mt. Ararat Baptist Church on Paulson Avenue, where he'll be remembered as a family man and friend, leader, musician and historian.

There will be one more ceremony next month that he'll be at in spirit.

On June 23rd, a Pennsylvania historical marker will be dedicated in the Hill on a spot by the now-demolished offices of the African American Musicians Union Local 471. It took two years of toil by the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh to make it happen. And you can bet that one way or another, Chuck Austin will be there.

(Much of the article was written from bits and pieces from various sources across the web, but Steve Twedt's Post Gazette obit in particular provided tons of useful stuff that Old Mon shamelessly, uh, "borrowed.")

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