Heritage and Mentorship Celebrated at Pittsburgh Jazz Fest
Pittsburgh is famous for its football team, steel and ketchup. But during the first weekend of June, locals and tourists alike celebrated the city’s rich jazz heritage. Thanks in part to its director, Janis Burley Wilson, the 2nd Annual Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival mirrored much of its host city’s character—from its laidback, inviting community to the intimacy of the performances themselves.
This city has given the jazz world many luminary figures, including pianist Erroll Garner, guitarist George Benson and drummer Art Blakey. Like Max Roach, Blakey not only ushered in an influential style of drumming, but he also ensured that jazz would live on thanks to his mentorship in the evolving group The Jazz Messengers. Much of this fest’s lineup honored Pittsburgh-bred giants like Blakey, and a key theme was honoring the role that mentorship continues to play in jazz.
The Clayton Brothers’ set provided the memorable image of bassist John Clayton smiling down on his son, pianist Gerald Clayton, with admiration. Nevertheless they are professionals who, joined by alto saxophonist Jeff Clayton (John’s brother), trumpeter Terell Stafford and drummer Obed Calvaire, clearly came prepared. The group opened their set with “Big Daddy Adderleys,” off of their Brother To Brother album (ArtistShare, 2008), showing that they would pull no punches with the tight harmonies on this straightahead number. “You shouldn’t be shy about swinging if it’s in your soul,” said John Clayton. Jazz history is populated with many well-known sibling teams, and it’s no secret that there’s an intrinsic bond and communication that can often give familial bands a slight edge over others. The Clayton Brothers’ performance provided more evidence of this phenomenon.
Trumpeter Sean Jones, an Ohio native and the festival’s artist-in-residence, kept things swinging during his performance. He was full of charisma on “Liberty Avenue Stroll,” an original composition that he dedicated to Blakey and another Pittsburgh legend, jazz drummer Roger Humphries. Jones delivered strong phrasing on “Transitions,” about the “roller coaster ride” that comes with turning 30, and lingering, steady tones on a more somber number of his set, “B.J.’s Tune,” off his 2005 album Gemini (Mack Avenue). There are tonal similarities to Freddie Hubbard’s “Mirrors,” but Jones’ playing reflects an array of influences. Although he said that the number was “spiritual” and not religious in tone, Jones closed out with a stirring improvisation of gospel singer Donnie McClurkin’s “Speak To My Heart.”
The late-night jam sessions allowed fans to experience and interact with many of these artists in smaller, more intimate settings, and you never knew what moments might occur during these unplanned, unrehearsed sets. Drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, a Pittsburgh native, played with numerous groups throughout the weekend—from the David Budway Band featuring saxophonist Steve Wilson to trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez and his Fort Apache Band. The opportunity to hear Watts’ unique modal style is a treat. Young players like Gerald Clayton and keyboardist Robert Glasper intently studied Watts as though they were taking a master class. Glasper—whose 2012 Blue Note release, Black Radio, debuted at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 album chart—focused on material from the new album but also nodded to Herbie Hancock’s classic Head Hunters album during his set.
The theme of mentoring continued with the arrival of two surprise additions to the lineup: saxophonist Donald Harrison and trumpeter Brian Lynch. They joined promising young upstarts The Curtis Brothers, along with veteran drummer Ralph Peterson Jr., to kick off the final day of the festival. Having Jazz Messenger alumni perform at this year’s festival illustrated just how far-reaching Blakey’s vision for jazz truly was.
“Art Blakey was one of the greatest human beings to walk the planet,” Harrison said as he discussed the impact that the drummer had on him. “The most important thing he gave young musicians was the experience of playing night after night with a true master of jazz. He in effect passed down the history of the music to each of his musicians, and The Jazz Messengers maintained the essence of mainstream modern jazz.”
—Shannon J. Effinger