Daily Archives: February 16, 2010

Researching Race Relations in Pittsburgh Music

For his quartet of the 1930s, clarinetist Benny Goodman hired Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, “the first black musicians to perform regularly in public with a white band.”¹

What was the situation in the Pittsburgh jazz scene?

If you explore the Oral History of Music in Pittsburgh (OHMP) collection housed in the Music Department, you’ll find race relations touched upon by a number of interviewees such as journalist Frank Bolden, drummer H. B. Bennett, union member Philip Slaugh, and organist Charles H. Heaton.

Another great resource would be the almost 100 interviews conducted by the African American Jazz Preservation Society of Pittsburgh (AAJPSP) that are housed by the University of Pittsburgh’s Archives Service Center.   The AAJPSP has also done tremendous research and archiving of the African American branch of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 471, which remained separate from the rest of the union until the mid 1960s.

Carlos Peña’s research into Pittsburgh jazz recordings interestingly revealed that “aside from African-Americans, Italian-Americans seem to be the most highly-represented ethnic group.”   In an interview by Peña, keyboardist Frank Cunimondo “indicates that ethnic backgrounds never figured into the dynamics of the scene on a conscious level, and that the musicians, Black, Italian, or otherwise, generally had good relations.”

One might expect or, at least, hope for a fair amount of integration and respect when white musicians were playing and enjoying a musical genre created by African Americans (that itself was an adaptation of European musical forms).  And this was the case, albeit temporarily, in the Hill District in the 1950s, the black cultural center where whites partook of the nightlife.  Or in East Liberty, Italian American jazz musicians lived in close proximity to African Americans before the 1960s.  Then such things as urban renewal projects and an economic shift away from manufacturing drastically changed these neighborhoods’ demographics and certainly affected Pittsburgh’s music history.

It’s a complicated story and worthy of further research, not just during Black History Month, but year round.  The above-mentioned resources and many others are available at your library.

– Tim

¹ Teachout, Terry. “Swinging with Benny Goodman.” Commentary 105.5 (1998).

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