Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival Builds on the City’s History


Vibraphonist Roy Ayers performs last year in Pittsburgh.

(Photo: Joey Kennedy)

Pittsburgh’s contributions to the jazz firmament stretch from seminal figures like Roy Eldridge, Kenny Clarke and Earl “Fatha” Hines to modern-day luminaries like Geri Allen, Steve Nelson and Jeff “Tain” Watts. But as the 21st century dawned, the onetime Steel City lacked a major jazz festival.

That began to change one day in 2009, when Janis Burley Wilson, then an executive with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, met with trumpeter Sean Jones, drummer Roger Humphries and bassist Dwayne Dolphin for a barbecue at Dolphin’s Pittsburgh-area home. Jazz advocates all, they cooked up a plan and two years later, the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival was born.

“We have a great legacy and history here,” Burley Wilson said. “It was the right time to do it.”

The inaugural event in 2011 was conceived along the lines of the Detroit International Jazz Festival, but on a smaller scale. “We wanted to make sure the festival had a certain vibe—energetic, easily accessible and free,” said Jones, then a professor at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University.

That vibe persists. At this year’s event, now called the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival (June 15–17), the bulk of the action will take place on three outdoor stages near Liberty Avenue. Though the staging area will be more spacious than last year’s location, near Penn Avenue and 9th Street, about 20,000 people are expected to pack the streets to hear the music—for free.

The stages will offer a cross-section of cutting-edge artists, from Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez to trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonists Donny McCaslin, Kenny Garrett and Miguel Zenón; pianist Emmet Cohen will continue his intergenerational association with drummer Tootie Heath; and singer Gregory Porter, who appeared as a relative unknown at the festival’s first installment, will return as this year’s Sunday-night closer.

While the bulk of the action will be outside, the festival will kick off indoors on Friday with what Burley Wilson called a “jazz crawl,” in which local artists perform in spots throughout the cultural district. Later that night, jam sessions will be held around town. In between, a ticketed concert at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture will feature bassist Marcus Miller’s quintet with Pittsburgh native Brett Williams on piano.

Burley Wilson stressed that the decision to charge admission—even on a limited basis, for the Miller concert and a few ancillary activities—was a recent nod to economic realities, a move that was necessary to keep the quality and quantity of the music at current levels. “These festivals are expensive, and we don’t have an endowment,” she said. “We rely on foundations and corporate support.”

The decision appears not to have dampened the festival’s broad appeal. An audience survey revealed that in 2017 about 20 percent of the audience came from areas outside Pennsylvania, primarily Ohio, Michigan and Canada. The audience was divided evenly between men and women and well distributed among age and income groups.

The atmosphere is decidedly festive, but it has its serious side as well. Burley Wilson, the president and CEO of the Wilson Center, plans to schedule artist talks and master classes in the ultramodern center’s various spaces. And, as one of the few women running a major music festival, she said she is “committed to presenting diversity onstage. I’ve heard many musicians—women jazz musicians—who say they don’t get a chance to headline as much as they would like. I always try to present those musicians who are doing great work and just happen to be women.”

This year’s festival is set to include drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and singer Polly Gibbons, who hails from the U.K. But it might be blues singer Shemekia Copeland who, at a time when women’s empowerment is at the forefront of the American consciousness, draws the most attention by virtue of both her pipes and her message.

Backed by her longtime band—lead guitarist Arthur Neilson, rhythm guitarist Willie Scandlyn, bassist Kevin Jenkins and drummer Robin Gould—Copeland will be belting out tunes that address social injustice, like “The Battle Is Over (But The War Goes On),” and domestic violence, like “It Don’t Hurt No More.”

Such tunes, she said, have been met with gratitude wherever she sings them—including at a separate music series at the Wilson Center. “I hear from women, ‘This song saved my life,’” she said. “That’s one of my reasons for performing.”

Burley Wilson said that the decision to book the award-winning Copeland—who as a young girl sang at Harlem’s Cotton Club with her father, legendary blues guitarist Johnny Copeland—was in keeping with the profile of August Wilson himself, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Pittsburgh native whose work was inspired by the blues.

“Moving forward,” she said, “we’ll always have a blues presence at the jazz festival because of the connection with the August Wilson Center. Shemekia’s helping us to create that presence.”

The festival has a history of regularly addressing social issues, too. Last year at the Wilson Center, trumpeter Jones presented an extended work he wrote based on James Baldwin’s incendiary The Fire Next Time. This year, bassist Miller, who has been a spokesman for UNESCO’s Slave Route Project, said he will draw on his latest album, 2015’s Afrodeezia (Blue Note), a disquisition on the slave trade that employs African, Caribbean and Brazilian rhythms.

Miller, who previously has performed in Pittsburgh at both the jazz festival and at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, said that audiences in the city have proved a sophisticated lot, hip to what he was trying to say in pulsating tunes like “B’s River” and “We Were There.”

“In some parts of the States,” he said, “they weren’t as familiar with some of the African rhythms I’m using. But, of course, not in Pittsburgh.”

One tune from Afrodeezia that has proved universally accessible is Miller’s powerful cover of The Temptations’ 1972 hit “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.” Miller said he is certain to play the tune at the festival, adding that audiences only familiar with its treatment on Afrodeezia will be interested in how it has matured on the road.

“People will be surprised,” he said. “The form has stretched—some things have been shortened because we realized they’re not where the juice is. We’ve also added parts—if somebody played something one night that was inspired, we said, ‘That’s no longer an improvisation; that’s part of the song.’”

Such surprises are built into the festival’s DNA, Burley Wilson said: “Our goal is to try and curate an experience that is going to give people an opportunity to learn about someone new and to hear the music that is familiar to them—to give them what they want and what they need to hear.” DB

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