Jazz on The Hill: A Beloved Pitt Tradition

man playing a trumpet and another playing a standup bassThe smooth sounds of jazz emanating from a Hill District senior citizen center on a chilly November morning represented a longstanding University of Pittsburgh tradition — the community outreach portion of the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert.

For 48 years, Pitt has invited international jazz artists to convene for a week of free on-campus seminars and a popular concert at Carnegie Music Hall; this year’s festivities spanned from Oct. 29 through Nov. 3. But another high note of Jazz Week takes a few of the guest musicians to small venues around the city.

More than jazz

Pitt’s Department of Music hosts a variety of concerts year round, from holiday celebrations to Afropop ensembles. Check out a list of upcoming performances.

On this rainy Saturday, about 35 senior citizens and a number of younger people gathered in the Hill House Senior Services Center on Bedford Avenue in this historically Black Pittsburgh neighborhood of about 10,000 people that sits less than two miles from campus. They assembled to take in the sounds of bassist Reginald Veal and renowned trumpeter Sean Jones, accompanied by Pitt jazz studies PhD candidate Billy D. Scott on keyboards.

“I come here every year without fail,” said Hill District resident Regina Brown as she smiled and settled in for the music with her cup of coffee. “I think of it as a gift to our community.”

woman in a black stocking capAn avid jazz fan with a grown son who is a successful trombonist, Brown is proud of her neighborhood’s rich jazz heritage. For several decades, from the 1920s through the 1950s, the Hill played host to Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and other national acts who would stop there on tour. Nightclubs dotted Wylie and Centre Avenues, and local jazz artists kept places like the Crawford Grill and the Harlem Casino hopping.

It’s all the more reason why she and the others warmly greet the visiting musicians who come every autumn to their corner of the world, courtesy of Pitt. Over the years, the small room has hosted jazz greats like Curtis Fuller, Donald Harrison, George Cables and Esperanza Spalding, to name just a few.

The trio’s music filled the room and, after a few numbers, Jones opened it up for questions.

“How do you all know the same songs?” asked one woman.

Jones explains that jazz is a universal language and one they all speak fluently.

“We’ve spent thousands of hours memorizing this music,” he said. “We’re immersed in this art form. We’ve been doing it all our lives. And playing it is like going home.”

Others asked about the music itself, how to be a jazz innovator and whether or not Veal had to buy a second airplane seat ticket to travel with his upright bass. (The answer was no.)

Then Jones announced the breaking news of the passing of famed trumpeter Roy Hargrove at age 49 which brought audible gasps from the crowd.

“Now we’re going to a deeper place in the music and we’re speaking to him,” said Jones, who then began a haunting version of the ballad “Body and Soul.”

Audience member Robert Vickers, 88, is also a regular at the annual performance. He can recall the era when the Hill — with venues like The Hurricane Club and The Crawford Grill — was a jazz hot spot.

“Those were the good days,” he said.

Like Brown, he rarely misses a Pitt jazz event at the Hill House. These senior citizens also attend the Carnegie Music Hall concert that evening, using free tickets distributed by a member of the Pitt Jazz Committee.

man in a blue hoodieVickers called the Jones, Veal and Scott performance “a good preview of coming attractions.”

Brown appreciates the impact the music has on her. “We were so sad last week,” she said, her eyes welling up at the thought of the 11 people killed in late October at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood. “This music is kind of like a balm.”

After rousing applause, the musicians mingled with the crowd before packing up to head to their hotel.

For pianist and Pitt student Scott, it was a memorable session.

“Sean has a very lyrical musical voice,” he said. “He allows the music to breathe. And Reginald is one of the most thoughtful and responsive bassists I’ve ever played with.”

Asked how the neighborhood event compares to his playing a gig at Lincoln Center, Jones smiled.

“Jazz is a social music and, in some respects, it works better in these venues,” he said.

“This was kind of a spiritual experience,” added Scott. “We are reviving a rich jazz history, but also trying to move the music forward and give it a new life.”