Black Pittsburgh

May 2, 2012

I’ve been here before, but it hit me again this time, coming into the city at night.  This has got to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.   The river and the bridges all lit up — there are 446 of them.

Pittsburgh is the Paris of North America.   It’s also like Paris in being one of the oldest and liveliest homes for jazz.   The music was first brought here by the riverboats from New Orleans, beginning with Fate Marable’s band on the Streckfus steamers.   The 18-year old Louis Armstrong cut his teeth that way, as did Earl Hines and King Oliver.  Eventually, all the jazz greats would end up spending time here, playing the clubs in the Hill District.  Lena Horne was here for 4 years, from 1937 to 1940, got married here and had two children.  Duke Ellington came in 1938 and did a week of shows at the Stanley Theater.   Art Blakey was born here, played with Pittsburgh natives Billy Strayhorn and Mary Lou Williams, and would go on to  found the Jazz Messengers, a legend and an institution, with a 30-year legacy.

Then there was August Wilson, also born in the Hill District.   9 of the 10 plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle are set — not surprisingly — in Pittsburgh, including The Piano Lesson, inspired by Romare Bearden’s painting of the same title and featuring a musical instrument as the bone of contention.

Literature and music and the arts — all mixed up, a local recipe, not New York’s.

And one other ingredient.   Art Blakey’s nickname was “Bu” because he converted to Islam after visiting West Africa in 1948, taking the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina.  August Wilson also converted, in 1969, when he married Brenda Buxton, a member of the Nation of Islam, and remained a Muslim even after their divorce in 1972.

Hills Street Blues writer Stephen Bochco — who went to the Carnegie Insitute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) — apparently drew on the Hill District to create the rundown setting for the show.   But maybe there’s another script to be written, another city to describe?

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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