The Numbers game

Idris Elba at a 2007 American Music Awards aft...

Any resemblance between Jay Evans and Idris Elba is on purpose. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I originally put this post two years ago while I was working on A Treasure of Gold, which releases on November 10, 2015.  Besides, it’s always good to have an excuse to look at Idris Elba, who is Jay Evans in my mind.  Enjoy and I’ll see you in a few weeks!  

The blog post this week was triggered by my reworking of my Golden-Heart nominated story A Champion’s Heart. The story starts off when the hero encounters a numbers boss to ask him for money to engage in a prize fight.  The numbers racket or what’s also known as the policy game, was a form of small-stakes gambling engaged in by mostly people in the African American community.  The stakes were small ones, but once won, (determined by the last three or four digits of the volume of the New York Stock Exchange or from the Clearinghouse) the winner would have a nice pot of money that would last a little while.

The men who ran the policy game in Pittsburgh, where my stories were set, performed a certain kind of community service in using their profits to fund scholarships or as in the case of Gus Greenlee, to fund the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team in the Negro leagues.  It was no accident that the team was named after the world famous Crawford Grill, where Greenlee held sway.

He was supported in the numbers racket by William “Woogie” Harris, brother of the famous Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris.  Woogie owned the Crystal barbershop in the Hill district where he was headquartered. He also owned the house where the National Negro Opera Company was maintained.

Pittsburgh’s numbers racket was smaller than in large cities like New York in Harlem or Chicago.  Because their stake, at least initially, was smaller, these two men were able to run things across all of the Pittsburgh neighborhoods from about 1925 to the 1940’s. However, as it is discussed in Kings by Nathan Thompson, other people wanted to buy into the numbers racket. With Pittsburgh’s smaller stake, it took a longer time for Greenlee and Harris to be pushed out of the racket and they, unlike other numbers men, were able to die as old men in their beds.

Jay Evans, my numbers boss and the hero of A Treasure of Gold, is a tall, handsome, dark-skinned drink of water who dresses in custom-tailored suits and has a big heart for the community. Greenlee and Harris were sort of short, round and light-skinned, but their contributions to Pittsburgh have not been acknowledged until recently.  Their philanthropical attitudes helped me to create this timely African American man who, in his appearances in my two stories set in 1923 and 1935, is very much at the center of running things.

The New Year’s specialist–Walt Harper

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.


The Crawford Grill–A Pittsburgh Jazz legend


Crawford Grill II

Crawford Grill II (Photo credit: joseph a)


For people who are still asking the question: “Why Pittsburgh?” I would remind them of a very famous place that many jazz aficionados know played a major role during Pittsburgh’s heyday as a jazz capital in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I may have mentioned the Crawford Grill before because the owner was Gus Greenlee, the famous numbers kingpin who also owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords.

The Crawford Grill was the place people came to hear the real jazz music after the downtown clubs, which stayed segregated for years, had closed for the evening.  Maybe in the transport, away from Pittsburgh’s business center, people could see a different world. The Crawford Grill was located in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.  According to Nathan Thompson in Kings, this was the place where you could find Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Billy Eckstine, Mary Lou Williams, Earl “Fatha” Hines and many others. The late night was the time when everyone black and white, would show up at The Crawford Grill.  The musicians would all jam together and the patrons would all listen together.  Quite a different scenario than the segregation that regularly happened just hours before in the “high-tone” white jazz clubs in downtown Pittsburgh.

The Hill District is the uptown area, just above the downtown area.  Many don’t know that there were actually three Crawford Grills.  This first club was where many of the heavy hitters played. It was located on land that was later occupied by The Civic Arena, the place where the circus would come to town in my childhood years.  Of course, now The Civic Arena is gone and there’s just massive blank space where history once existed.  The first Crawford Grill was destroyed by fire in 1951.  Gus Greenlee died a few months after the fire.

The second location still stands in The Hill District, but it’s all boarded up.  It was open until 2001.  There’s still a phantom website inviting you to come to lunch there. There have been on and off discussions about opening it back up as a center of black history and culture, but since the August Wilson Center has been struggling, I don’t think that’s going to happen.  The third location of The Crawford Grill was in Manchester, across the Allegheny River, but it isn’t there anymore either.  I guess Gus Greenlee tried to take the concept as a chain, but in true Pittsburgh style, what works in one neighborhood, might not work so well in another neighborhood.

My discussion about The Crawford Grill as a center of jazz culture and appreciation seems to have a resonating theme that is not so happy.  These places of history are like phantoms, gone without appreciation or acknowledgement.  Thankfully, the second location of the Crawford Grill has a Pennsylvania Historical Marker. Still, whenever I go back home, I just see a big old parking lot where a lot of history was demolished to make way for an eyesore auditorium that is now gone.  When are we going to learn to recognize and appreciate our historical places?