When I was growing up, New Year’s Eve was a time for family. We would get together at my uncle’s hours and play games to ring in the New Year. However, to many Black Pittsburghers, a New Year’s or even just a weekend night out wouldn’t be complete without going to Walt Harper’s Attic or later Harper’s, the famous nightclubs owned and operated by local jazz legend, Walt Harper.
One of the ongoing themes in Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, is that a lot of the success that African Americans experienced in the north would not have been possible in the South. Seeing other African Americans succeed, like Walt Harper, certainly inspired other African Americans to try. Harper was born in Pittsburgh in 1926 to relatively middle class parents, but from beginning his upbringing in that academic-rich section of Pittsburgh—Oakland—meant that he had ready access to all of the cultural amenities that PMI (last week’s post) and later the University of Pittsburgh, could provide to a developing young jazz pianist. His talents meant that he was able to travel all over the city and play for parties and proms. His engagements with Errol Gardner and Stanley Turrentine, jazz legends in themselves, meant that his reputation was secure.
He played at the legendary Crawford Grill, the place I discussed to two weeks ago. However in the late 1960’s (and I suspect that the building of the Civic Arena had something to do with it), he opened up his own nightclubs in the downtown area. He had engendered so much good will going around the Pittsburgh area playing those parties and proms, that it seemed like a long overdue move for an African American man to own and operate his own nightclub in downtown. He also played for the home Steeler games for years. He died in 2006.
This reflection on Walt Harper represents the end of my look at Pittsburgh music. I first found out about him when the Harpers intersected with my family when my cousin married one of Walt’s nieces–a story for the fiction pages.