Music in the Hill was a way of life until ‘progress’ silenced venues
From the window of his Hill District home on Epiphany Street in the early 1950s, 7-year-old Sala Udin would bask in the warm summer breeze as he watched ladies adorned with gloves and hats and smartly dressed men in crisp suits and ties make their way down Fullerton Avenue and into the swanky Loendi Club.
Outside, shiny vehicles parked in tight rows lined the street as trolleys rattled their way down the tracks. As the club’s double doors swung open, an irresistible melody would fill the air.
“One could literally walk the street and hear the crying, loving sounds from the sax play,” wrote John M. Brewer Jr. in his book “Pittsburgh Jazz” (Arcadia Publishing, $17.95). “Food joints, fresh with the smell of barbecue ribs, wings and fries, were served with jazzy sounds that made one happy to be alive and hanging out on Wylie Avenue in the Hill District.”
The neighborhood had been dubbed “Little Harlem.” Harlem renaissance poet Claude McKay called it the “Crossroads to the World” in recognition of the convergence of a robustly diverse arts scene for a melting pot of 25 nationalities, as counted in the 1940 census. And it was Homestead’s WHOD radio’s Mary Dee Dudley, aka “Mary Dee,” the first black female radio DJ, who pinpointed exactly where those Crossroads were — right at the corner of Wylie Avenue and Fullerton Street.
The Hill District had risen as the epicenter of the jazz scene in Pittsburgh, a reverberation felt throughout the 1920s and into the mid-1960s that lured some of the world’s greatest into the sooty confines of the city. It was a stop that few overlooked on their cross-country tours.
From nightclubs to big-band rooms, the lights were bright along the streets and avenues with billings and marquees that touted soon-to-be legendary names like Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, John Coltrane, Kenneth Spearman “Klook” Clarke, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Maxine Sullivan.
Hitting the Uptown
Tucked within the 100 blocks of the Lower Hill District were venues that would become as celebrated as those who played there. There was little concern about closing times. When the mainstays would shut their doors, after-hours clubs, including the Bambola Social Club and the Musicians Club, would open theirs.
“Our biggest decision during the warm months was which clubs we were going to visit,” recalls Udin, whose coming-of-age ensured entree. “You couldn’t get to them all, because there was just too many, so you had to try to figure out who’s playing and what club, and get to the clubs that had the best action.”
The neighborhood had become a breeding ground, producing an enviable class of innovators such as vocalists Billy Eckstein and Dakota Staton, pianists Earl Hines, Mary Lou Williams and Billy Strayhorn, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Tommy Turrentine, guitarists Joe Negri, Jimmy Ponder and Ron Affif, bassist Ray Brown and drummers Art Blakey, Joe Harris, Roger Humphries and Jeff “Tain” Watts.
Inside Lew Mercur’s Harlem Casino, at 1714 Centre Ave., one could find virtuoso Erroll Garner at the piano, lighting up a stage that was large enough to accommodate half a dozen or so other musicians. Patrons sipped the club’s signature cocktail of orange juice, apricot brandy and gin from rows of tables separated from the dance floor by plush velvet ropes. Colorful murals ran nearly from floor to ceiling.
At 1862 Centre Ave. stood the 1,300-seat Roosevelt Theater. At night, it’s towering, vertical sign teased with a 20,000-watt promise of a good time, hanging above a marquee that once welcomed Ellington and his World Famous Orchestra to the stage.
Opened by Pittsburgh Crawfords owner William “Gus” Greenlee, the original Crawford Grill at the corner of Crawford Street and Wylie Avenue stretched for nearly a full city block. In the main room, which occupied the second of three stories, sat a revolving stage and glass-topped bar where patrons would hear the notes of Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.
When the building was destroyed by fire in 1951, the action shifted to the Crawford Grill No. 2, a few blocks down the street. Those too young to enter would get their fill by peeking through the door near the bandstand. In years to come, Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente would often be seen taking his regular seat at the bar.
Dubbed “the Apollo Theater” of the jazz organ universe by Jimmy McGriff, the Hurricane Club at 1603 Centre Ave. was run by the infamous Anna Simmons “Birdie” Dunlap, whose no-nonsense business approach negated the need for a drink minimum — if you were breathing, you had better be drinking. Artists including Sonny Stitt, George Benson, Bill Doggett and Max Roach performed for a crowd that left elbow room only.
The universal language
During the 1920s and into the ’30s, the integration of black musicians into the mainstream entertainment scene Downtown was infrequent, if not virtually nonexistent. But when they became familiar fixtures on the club scene on the Hill, the lines quickly began to blur. “Soon Downtown became Uptown and Uptown artists began to perform Downtown,” Brewer wrote. “The two forces merged to the delight of Pittsburghers.”
The vibe that pulsated through the streets was appealing not only to those who inhabited them, but also to patrons from all points throughout the city and well beyond.
And, at the heart of that mentality — feeding it on a continuous basis seven days a week — was jazz.
“It was not something just performed for highly specialized audiences or for ticket-buying concertgoers. It was a part of a community of nightlife patrons that appreciated and supported the musicians as artists and important individuals,” wrote guitarist and ethnomusicologist Colter Harper in his dissertation, “The Crossroads of the World: A Social and Cultural History of Jazz in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, 1920-1970.”
The reasoning behind that kind of mentality is obvious, says Sandra Baker, volunteer program director at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District. “Music is the universal language,” she says.
‘And then it died’
As the steel mills began to close, Pittsburgh looked inward to see how and where it could reinvent itself. On the Lower Hill, strange words like “urban renewal,” “renaissance” and “cultural acropolis” became intertwined with the musical notes floating in the air.
“It was a victory for those who believed that ‘progress’ came in the shape of massive projects that served relatively few, that the Hill was a place of urban blight that had no redeeming value to the city,” Harper wrote. “There was definitely a need to improve living conditions in the Lower Hill, though there was a strong business infrastructure at the time of renewal.”
Regardless of the argument, the decision had been made: A bulldozer and a wrecking ball stood at the Crossroads.
“It’s not just wiping out an old, dilapidated building or whatever. You’re also tearing down a venue that attracts people nationally to the city. So, that’s gone, and that’s gone forever. So, when you knock down the bricks and mortar, you kind of knocked away everything. And I think that’s the real sad part of it,” says Samuel W. Black, director of African-American programs at the History Center.
For many, the promise of something to be gained would never make up for the reality of what had been lost. Decades later, it’s a wound that has yet to heal.
“That’s like asking somebody who has diabetes and experiences any parts of their body continually amputated what it’s like to experience amputation,” Udin says. “It is such a feeling of loss. Change, not for the better. The cultural environment of the community was working hard and playing hard. And then it died.”
Pausing, he becomes very quiet. “It didn’t die,” he says. “It was killed.”