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The Pittsburgh Music Institute story



A few weeks ago, I wrote about Madame Mary Dawson and her capacity to open the minds of the world to the possibility of African Americans singing classical music.  Her approach to educating the youth of Pittsburgh and other made her endeavors possible. This is how education works—to make the impossible seem possible.  Another Pittsburgh institution did that as well.   The Pittsburgh Music Institute also helped the youth of the city to see that their musical education mattered.  Even for African Americans.  In believing in the capability for young African American musicians to be trained, PMI, as it was known, was ahead of its time.


PMI trained African Americans on an undergraduate and graduate level in the early twentieth century. This was at a time when it was a hard task for African Americans to receive a high school education, and yet, PMI sought to educate youth of all races when Jim Crow practices ruled the day in many colleges.  Thus, in the early 20th century, African Americans were able to obtain the credentials to be college music professors and high school music teachers.  It is no accident that the first African American to be hired on full time as a teacher in the Pittsburgh area, was a music teacher—educated at PMI.


Charted in 1915, PMI became one of the top five music schools in the country.  They didn’t just stop at educating on the undergraduate and graduate level.  Besides attracting students from all over the country, they also branched out into the community with studios and educated younger children.  At one point they had almost 30 of these branches, and developed a sort of “farm” system to ensure that children of all ages were prepared for the rigors of higher education at PMI—when they were old enough.


According to Pittsburgh Jazz by John M. Brewer, Jr. some of the stellar alumns of PMI include many jazz legends: Vivian Reed, Walt Harper, Earl Wild, Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal, Charles Austin, Carl Arter, Horace Turner, Ruby Younge, George Hudson, Art Nance, David Carey, Eddie Russ and Robert “Bull” Ruther.  PMI was located in Oakland (shown here) .  The Oakland neighborhood is where the University of Pittsburgh is located as well as the formerly named Carnegie Technological Institute—now known as Carnegie Mellon University.  African Americans were able to walk with dignity and purpose in an area rich in higher education opportunities.  Inevitably, PMI’s quest to remain separate ended in 1963 when it was taken over as the University of Pittsburgh’s jazz department and its lovely building was demolished.  As with the case of the Civic Arena, an uglier building was put in its place. Still, by admitting and educating African Americans on a higher level, PMI performed a vital function and made itself vital part of the Pittsburgh jazz music scene.


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