Saturday, April 30, 2011

Jasiri X

Jasiri X image from Real Talk Express

Hey, Pittsburgh has been getting some love as a rap town lately, with Wiz Khalifa, Mac Miller and Slimmie Hendrix (Pittsburgh Slim) putting the 'Burgh on the urban map. It didn't hurt that Paradise Gray ("the Arkitech") decided to make the Steel City his new home, or that Rostrum Records planted roots here.

But the guy taking Pittsburgh rap to a new level is East Liberty's Jasiri X. The Chicago native moved here in the mid-eighties, went to Gateway High School (Taylor Allderdice isn't the only hip-hop incubator in town), and rapped for Concrete Elete before going solo.

Jasiri X is the X-Clan rep of Pittsburgh. He doesn't play to the gangsta or party crowd; he's the modern-day Bob Dylan of the urban scene.

He first made a name for himself nationally in 2007 with “Free the Jena Six;” the song was named 2007 Hip Hop Political Song of the Year and and “Single of the Year” at the Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards. In late 2009, he released "American History X," earning him six Pittsburgh Hip-Hop Awards, including Album of the Year. The LP touched on everything from Afghanistan to BET's playlist.

The East End rapper was the first hip-hop artist to receive the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture Fellowship when he was honored in 2009. He hosts the internet radio news/rap show "This Week With Jasiri X," directed by brother activist Paradise Gray and going strong after four years.

Jasiri is out touring in support of his latest vid releases and upcoming album. And just to show there were no hard feelings - it's all about the ratings, right? - he was featured on the BET show "Rap City."

His videos include songs like the role-reversing "What if the Tea Party Was Black," inspired by blogger Tim Wise's post of the same name. It was downloaded 200,000+ times and created a barrage of commentary, some thoughtful and some...well, not.

It won a Judges Prize for JX and producer Gray from the progressive 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club (although we suspect Tom Corbett and Jim Roddey weren't impressed.) The vid was also named the “Best Local YouTube Phenomenon” by The Pittsburgh City Paper.

Others are "Real Gangstas," dedicated to Wall Street robber barons, "Dr. King's Nightmare," a counterpoint to Glenn Beck's DC rally, “Enough is Enough,” about the Sean Bell shooting, and "The Only Color That Matters Is Green" which is self-explanatory, we hope.

His latest album, "Ascension" is scheduled for release soon, and will be issued through Vancouver's Wandering Worx Music label, a new hip-hop impress.

Jasiri reps his lyrics, too. His video “4Haiti“ dedicated its proceeds toward purchasing a solar generator to purify water for a family in Haiti. He can be spotted around town in the middle of activist events, the latest being last month's "Our Communities, Our Jobs" rally. He's also president of LYRICS Inc. (Leading Young Rappers in Career Success), using modern technology to mentor the up-and-comers.

It should come as no surprise that Jasiri X and Paradise Gray are collaborators in more than media productions. In 2005, he hooked up with Gray and some others to form One Hood, a group that works to make the town, in Paradise's words, "One city, one people, one 'hood." The activists are the generally the first ones on the scene to rep the community when things go south.

So hey, make some room, Wiz, Mac and Slim. There's another side of rap beside the partee, and its conscience, Jasiri X, is about to join you.

"Jasiri Xtra" from Ascension

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sean Jones

Sean Jones

It's a Robert Frost kind of road, wending its way from Warren, Ohio to New York City and then to Pittsburgh, but it's the path Sean Jones chose, and the City jazz scene is richer for it.

Trumpeter Jones is a musician, composer, bandleader, and educator, and it all started in Warren, where he was born in 1978 and began whetting his musical chops by belting out gospel as a youngster. He knew music was his calling almost right from the start.

After graduating from Warren Harding High, Jones went on to Youngstown State, where he earned a degree in classical trumpet performance and then went on to win a master's degree from Rutgers University, where he studied under Professor William Fielder, who included Jones' future boss, Wynton Marsalis, among his students.

Jones started out as most do, as a session player, but in 2004, his stars aligned.

He was playing his horn at an Ohio gig, and Wes Anderson was in the audience, taking in the show. Anderson was more than a random jazz fan; he's an alto sax player for Wynton Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. After hearing a few of Jones' licks, Anderson called his boss in the wee hours after the performance and said “Brother Wynton, you got to hear this cat.”

Jones got an interview with Marsalis and a six-month internship with the orchestra. When that was up, he was offered the first chair in Marsalis’ hand-groomed ensemble. He still plays with the internationally renown band and joins them for three month-long worldwide tours each year.

He also released his first of five and counting albums ("Eternal Journey") as a band leader for the Grosse Pointe Farms-based jazz label Mack Avenue Records. Pretty heady stuff for a kid in his mid twenties.

In 2005, Pittsburgh sax man Mike Tomaro, who is also the head honcho of jazz studies at Duquesne, hired Jones as an artist-in-residence. The following year, Jones joined Duquesne as a professor.

It's a hire that's been nothing but roses for the City jazz scene. Jones settled in by moving to Robinson Township, and his local presence made an immediate impact. His life is about music, and he haunts the area jazz clubs, sitting in on jams with any player who will have him - and who wouldn't? He performs in the City. He lectures and sits in on jazz workshops.

And in Jones' most notable move, he brought back the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra in 2009, now serving as its artistic director. The ensemble is the resident 16-member big band of the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, loosely based on the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He picked up the pieces from Pitt prof and brass player Dr. Nathan Davis, who originally formed the band in 1986, but saw it splinter because of financial pressures.

The trumpeter performs with his own groups both nationally and internationally, in addition to his gig with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Jones plays at music venues and jazz festivals such as the Monterey Jazz Festival, Detroit International Jazz Festival and Montreal International Jazz Festival.

He teaches, performs with the Louis Armstrong Legacy University, and worked with the Chico O'Farrill Orchestra, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, the Illinois Jacquet Band, Charles Fambrough (he's featured on the bassist's "Live At Zanzibar Blue" record), Joe Lovano, Tom Harrell, Jon Faddis, Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster, Tia Fuller, Brad Leali and the International Jazz Quintet.

And let's not forget his own band, the Sean Jones Sextet, that plays from Montreal to Monterey, Paris to London, and from Bonn to Istanbul. He's about due for another Mack Avenue album. In fact, his life style led to one of the cuts on his latest release, 2009's "The Search Within."

The track is called "Sunday Reflections," and was written while he was traveling from New York to Pittsburgh.

He's been recognized a few times along the road, too: in 2006 and 2007, he was selected as Downbeat Magazine's "Rising Star." In 2007, Jones was picked as JazzTimes Magazine Reader's Poll "Best New Artist," and also that year, he was featured on the Grammy Award-winning "Turned to Blue" by Nancy Wilson.

Many consider Jones to be this generation's heir-apparent to jazz trumpet players like Louis Armstrong and company. And hey, he won't be 32 until May.

Sean Jones (he's the big guy) and Marcus Printup dueling trumpets

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Jeff "Tain" Watts

Jeff "Tain" Watts, photo by Oliver Link

Pittsburgh has been blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to drummers - Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Vinnie Colaiuta, Roger Humphries, J. C. Moses and a pack of others that are internationally known behind the kit. Let's add one more name to the list: Jeff "Tain" Watts.

Born in 1960, he was raised in the Hill District's Sugartop neighborhood, attending Madison Elementary before graduating from East Allegheny High in North Versailles after the family moved. (He's so Pittsburgh that he even slipped a Terrible Towel in on the album cover of the Branford Marsalis Quartet's 2006 "Bragg-town" CD.)

Watts got rolling at Duquesne, where he majored in classical percussion, primarily as a timpanist under the eye of Dave Stock. That's where he really got his start, playing in a band with Dwayne Dolphin, Geri Allen, Tony Campbell and Joseph Callins, performing in the City jazz houses.

The drummer transfered to the Berklee School of Music, where he pursued jazz studies. There were a pretty good bunch of classmates in Beantown to hang with, too. He honed his craft with players such as Branford Marsalis, Kevin Eubanks, Greg Osby, Aimee Mann, and Steve Vai.

He joined the Wynton Marsalis Quartet in 1981, picking up three Grammy Awards with the ensemble before leaving the group in 1988. After working with George Benson, Harry Connick. Jr. and McCoy Tyner, he joined the Branford Marsalis Quartet in 1989. Hey, guess what? Two more Grammys.

For you trivia buffs, Watts is the only musician to appear on every Grammy Award winning jazz record by both Wynton and Branford Marsalis.

Watts played in Kenny Garrett's band when he returned to New York in 1995 after three years in LA. He also recorded and toured with Branford Marsalis again, as well as with Michael Brecker, Betty Carter, Kenny Kirkland, Geri Allen, Alice Coltrane, Greg Osby and Ravi Coltrane among others. Watts' has recorded over 120 albums as a sideman.

His own band keeps him busy enough. The Jeff Tain Watts Quartet (Jean Toussaint, sax, James Genus, acoustic bass, David Kikoski, piano, and Watts on the skins) plays coast-to-coast, from the Village Vanguard in NY to the Triple Door in Seattle, along with recent side trips to Russia, Scotland and the Netherlands.

Watts also has shown up to give a hand to the Dave Pellow's Carnegie Mellon Jazz Ensembles, and isn't shy about popping up on the home turf to perform or participate in a workshop every so often.

He's released six of his own LPs as a leader (he writes most of the band's songs; he's also a noted jazz composer), the last trio on his own Dark Key Music label. The latest is this year's "Family." And the label landed him another Grammy. Dark Key Music was a 2010 Grammy Award Winner for Best Instrumental Solo, by Terence Blanchard on the release "Dancin' 4 Chicken."

But don't quit counting the Grammys quite yet; he just won one more as part of the "Mingus Big Band Live at Jazz Standard" record which recently was recognized as the "Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album."

Watts has worked in film and TV, too, as both a musician on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno (that was his La-La Land gig) and as an actor, playing Rhythm Jones in Spike Lee’s "Mo Better Blues," and contributing some music for the flick. He also had roles in "Throw Momma From the Train" and "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."

And his work has been duly recognized. "Modern Drummer" magazine voted him the best drummer twice.

His nickname? He was dubbed “Tain” by Kenny Kirkland when they were on tour in Florida and drove past a Chieftain gas station; Jeff Tain somehow was born from Chief-tain. Guess you had to be there. But he must like it; the adjective "Tainish" is now an accepted part of the jazz jargon.

Hey, the Big Apple may be where Jeff Watts hangs his hat now, but Pittsburgh is his home. And with him and guys like Cecil Brooks around to pass the drum torch on, the jazz circle here should remain unbroken for quite a spell.

Jeff "Tain" Watts - "Return of the Jitney Man" from the 2009 CD "Watts"

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Tony Mowod

tony mowod
Tony Mowod from Public Broadcasting Guide

Hey, jazz in Pittsburgh has a long and storied legacy with enough greats to fill a Leo Tolstoy novel. And there's no danger of it slipping away from the City's affection, at least as long as Tony Mowod is around to carry its torch.

Born Najeba Samreny (Mowod is his pap's first name), the son of Lebanese immigrants, he grew up in the Hill and lived above "John's," his dad's restaurant, located on the corner of Bedford and Washington avenues.

Mowod went to Epiphany grade school in the Lower Hill, across from the Civic Arena, and was taught piano by the Mercy nuns. From there, he went off to Central Catholic, where he developed his taste for jazz and starting taking vibraphone lessons. After graduating, Mowod crossed the street from his old elementary school and enrolled at Duquesne.

Jazz and the stage wrestled for his attention in those days. He was a player with the university's Red Masque and spun a jazz show at WDUQ. Mowod eventually dropped out of the Bluff school to chase his acting dreams in the Big Apple. But music and scripts kept their tug-of-war tensions pulling on his soul.

Chuck Grodin was his roomie for a while, and he trod the stage in off-Broadway roles. Hey, he was even one of the finalists for the "Uncle Tanoose" role on the Danny Thomas TV show.

He had a 9-to-5 office gig to pay the rent, and played the vibraphone three nights a week with a trio. But he left New York to come home and get married, fully intending to return and make a grab for the brass ring.

We know how that works out in real life. Mowod's roots took hold, and he raised his family here. That's a familiar story for Pittsburgh musicians; the City has been blessed in that many of its artists stepped into the glare of the bright lights and decided home was where their heart was, after all.

Mowod worked in local radio, but his bread-winner was running supper clubs. He operated the Cedars Lounge, the Vogue Terrace Dinner Theater, which burned down (both were in East McKeesport), and finally Antonio's, a Downtown bistro.

It closed in 1976, and Mowod was broke. He became a Servico manager while doing a weekend jazz show on WAMO after stints at WAZZ, WTAE, WKPA and WYDD (he was named the “Radio Personality of the Year” from 1967-69).

The next decade was a struggle, but by the late eighties it all came together when his jazz show on WDUQ took off and the Pittsburgh Jazz Society, his brainchild, was born.

He's spent the past couple of decades producing and broadcasting "The Night Side" jazz show, one of WDUQ's mainstay programs. It's been syndicated since 1997 as JazzWorks and reaches some 60 markets. Mowod's Quincy Jones' theme of "The Quintessence" is followed by jazz that's in tune with the average jazz joe.

That's earned him an occasional potshot for shunning the be-bop and avant garde artists and not pushing local players more heavily. But what he spins works; mainstream jazz has always been pooh-poohed by the hardcore followers, though it's what the majority of listeners want to hear. You can't please all the people all the time...but 95% of them is a pretty good catch.

But a darker cloud looms. Whether there will be a Mowod show to tune into at all in the future is the $64,000 question. WYEP's purchase of the station has raised concerns about WDUQ's continued commitment to jazz programming, and the end result is yet to be determined, or at least announced.

While the status of Night Side may be up in the air, the PJS will be around no matter what. Its mission statement says it all "...(an) all volunteer organization, dedicated to the promotion, preservation and perpetuation of all jazz. This is accomplished through education, performance, partnering and community outreach for members and the general public."

And it does all that.

Since Mowod founded it in 1987, the organization has a web site, started a Pittsburgh Jazz Hall of Fame and awarded over a quarter of a million dollars in scholarship money to student musicians, raised through dues and events.

They've held a Winter JazzFest, Jazz Cruises on the Gateway Clipper, Caribbean Cruises, the "Jazz Train," "Jazz Day in the Park," a smorgasbord of concerts, and been recognized by both the Allegheny County Commissioners and Pittsburgh City Council - and you know how often they agree on anything.

Mowod himself has received his share of recognition; he's earned more awards than Old Mon has gray hairs (and that's more than your fingers and toes can tote up, unless you're related to a centipede). Here's a select list:

California University of Pennsylvania awarded him the “Excellence in Jazz Promotion Award” for both 1989 and 1990. In 1992, he was presented with a plaque by the River City Brass Band for “Outstanding Contribution to the Growth and Development of Jazz.” In 1998 he was honored as the "Radio Entertainer of the Year" by Showtime. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette selected Mowod as one of the "Top 50 Cultural Power Brokers of Pittsburgh" in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

In 2000, he was chosen by Vectors/Pittsburgh as the “Man of the Year in Arts and Music” and received the Harry Schwalb "Excellence in the Arts Award for Jazz" by Pittsburgh magazine. In 2001 he was the recipient of the “Outstanding Achievement in Broadcasting Award for Radio” of the Pittsburgh Radio and Television Club. In 2003, he was again picked as one of the "Top 50 Cultural Forces in Pittsburgh" by the PPG. In 2004 Mowod was inducted into the Pittsburgh Jazz Hall of Fame.

In 2007 he took home the Talk Magazine/Walt Harper "All that Jazz" award, in 2009 he was named a "Champion of Jazz" by the Washington Jazz Society, and last year he was honored as a Jefferson Awards winner for his work with the Pittsburgh Jazz Society.

As always, if you want something done, find a busy man to do it. Mowod is also an Adjunct Professor of Jazz History at Duquesne University School of Music, and serves on the boards of the American Federation of Jazz Societies and Pittsburgh First Night, along with being an advisor for Pitt's Center for Latin American Studies.

And he's never quite shaken the acting bug; he still does summer stock plays. To pass the time, he also writes liner notes for local jazz releases and is active in church projects.

Busy dude, that Tony Mowod, and that's a good thing for Pittsburgh's current jazz scene and also its legendary players of the past. As he reminds his audience, "Keep a bit of love in your heart, and a taste of jazz in your soul." He's living proof of what that can accomplish.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Mosque Rises Again...

Syria Mosque QR Barcode from Pop City Media
photo by Sam Lavery

Hey, Pittsburgh has a lot of talented people in the music biz. And they all didn't hone their chops in their parent's garage.

The City universities - Duquesne, Pitt, and Carnegie-Mellon - all have top notch music schools. And that niche allows for some interaction among the other departments. That's how Sam Lavery resurrected Oakland's Syria Mosque.

Sam's a junior at CMU who was conducting a research project delving into the digital recreation of historic places. He looked down the street, and where most guys his age would see an asphalt parking lot, he saw the Syria Mosque, one of the City's iconic rock and roll halls.

It helped that Lavery is a musician and into the history and evolution of music. It also helped that his mom worked the Mosque as an usher.

So he went googling for some images and memorabilia, toggled a few free web-based apps, plunked down the princely sum of $25 for various supplies, and viola - the Mosque is back among the living, at least for those of us that can operate a smart phone camera.

Sam digitalized the coolness of the Mosque - the lions, the building, concert clips, posters, ticket stubs, any and everything he could find, and by conjuring up some computer magic (OK, maybe it's not voodoo to CMU students, but it sure seems like a black art to graybeards like Old Mon) he linked them to some QR barcodes, white squares with black modules that can be scanned by your run-of-the-mill smart phone.

So hey, make sure the battery is charged, and take a nice spring stroll along Bigelow Boulevard and Lytton Avenue. It used to take a good imagination to recall the glory of the Mosque.

Now all it takes is a good eye to spot the barcodes (you can find the sites here; there are a couple of dozen of them in the neighborhood stuck on various poles and signs), and a quick point and click on the ol' cell to bring back the Mosque and its memories on your screen. Sure beats a stodgy ol' historic marker.

It's not rocket science; as Sam explains "QR codes are square barcodes that when read by a cell phone camera reveal a website link, audio clip, or image that the user is automatically redirected to. All you need to scan them is a phone with a camera and access to the internet."

Nothing is quite that simple; unless you have a 'Droid, you'll have to download a QR reader. Never fear - it's easy and you can't be the price; they're free apps.

Lavery's not done. He had some ideas about preserving the Civic Arena, and has his keyboard clicking at making Three Rivers Stadium his next field of dreams, or maybe the Homestead Steel Works.

And hey, wouldn't you love to relive the Porkfest at TRS or the Beatles invading the Arena one more time?

The Bangles - "Walk Like An Egyptian" Syria Mosque 1986



Another of the iconic radio stations of Old Mon's youth has bit the dust; WZUM is officially dead. Actually, it's been a long time a'comin'. WZUM went off the air a year ago last week, and the FCC, after its mandated one-year wait, finally pulled the plug on the silent broadcaster.

The station had a 1000-watt daytime signal/24 watts nighttime that broadcast from Crafton, with its studios located in West Mifflin.

WZUM began in the 1962 as an R&B and top 40 station, run by Pittsburgh polka bandleader and eventual "Steeler Polka" performer Jimmy Pol, who later got control of the station (although some thought he was a National Record Mart front; stations and shops weren't supposed to mix back in the payola era).

You might remember a couple of its personalities: Mad Mike Metro, who jocked there from 1964-72, Bob Mack's "Wax Museum," aired from 1962-64, or a young Terry Lee who spun from the WZUM studios for a brief period between 1963-64.

Hey, do any of these DJs ring a bell: Terry Caywood, "Powerful" Paul Perry, Kit Baron, "Laid Back" Larry Allen, Al Gee, Michael Jon, Bobby Bennett, Jeff Troy or Mark Wallace? WZUM and its stable of jockeys was on everyone's car radio back in the day when AM mattered.

Pol or Perry would broadcast the "Polka Party" in the morning at sunrise. Great way to start the day, hey? It gets better.

Michael Jon was good enough to drop Old Mon a note, and fondly recalls brother jock Larry Allen following the polka wake-up call with a lead-in blast of Led Zeppelin (WZUM was one of the early local players of hard rock.) And you wonder why we graybeards loved AM radio?

During the early seventies, WZUM was a free-form AOR outlet from 10:00 am until sunset, but switched to religious programming under the call letters WPLW in 1974 after its purchase by Robert Hickling.

Following Hickling's death in 1998, it was sold to local broadcaster Mike Horvath and once again became WZUM. The station's airwaves flickered off and on for awhile; Horvath had to get the physical plant up to snuff.

The station returned to the air full time after a major transmitter and studio overhaul. They played eighties hits, and Mad Mike assembled a lineup of vintage DJs for a Sunday "Oldies Blast" live from Pietro's Pizza.

But after Metrovich's death, Horvath gave the blasts from the past 90 days to get out of Dodge; he had given up on local oldies music programming. That might have cost the station its niche in the Pittsburgh market; we'll never know.

He changed the on-air format to traffic reporting, smooth jazz, ethnic music, local sports and talk, but within a year, WZUM was mostly airing religious programming. Relevant Radio bought the station in 2005 and converted it to 24/7 Catholic radio, which lasted until 2009 when Sovereign City took over.

WZUM aired easy listening music in its place and was later floating trial balloons at the Delmarva Educational Association for programming or a possible sale, but it didn't pan out.

The station switched to southern Gospel by May and called itself "The Promise." Sovereign City sold the licensing rights to Virginia-based religious programmer Believe and Achieve Family and Educational Center. It only prolonged the agony by a few more months.

The station ceased operations in March of 2010 when the studio was padlocked for non-payment of rent; in another month, the broadcast towers shut down and all the equipment that could be salvaged was sold to engineer Randy Dietterich.

Its license technically remained active until now, and a couple of well-intentioned but not so well-heeled purchasers tried to revive the station. But after missing several rent payments, Crafton council directed that the three broadcast towers, which were located on leased borough land, be dismantled (they were), and that made any possible license transfer a moot point.

Now the license goes into auction, and the WZUM call letters are probably gone forever from Western Pennsylvania, along with a piece of Old Mon's youth.

Mad Mike does the "Camel Walk" with the PORCC All-Stars