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?
“Earl `Father’ (Fatha) Hines, a great swing musician, is shown with Pvt. Charles Carpenter, former manager of the Hines – NARA – 535834 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My music series continues with the people who worked in concert with Mary Lou Williams, featured two weeks ago, and how vital these individuals were to creating a vibrant music scene in jazz in Pittsburgh. This also continues to support the question of “why Pittsburgh” to show the many and varied contributions made by these artists.
Earl “Fatha” Hines played with Mary Lou a lot of the time. Born in Duquesne, which is just up river from Pittsburgh, he took up piano playing because he couldn’t play cornet as his father did. The cornet hurt him behind the ears, so Earl had to take up a different instrument. It’s a good thing for jazz history that he did, because it was on the piano where he composed and developed music. He, like Mary Lou, played widely for pay for various audiences in their youth all over Pittsburgh, allowing them to each develop their singular style. They are both given credit for helping to birth the style of bebop during the 1940’s and take jazz to a whole other lever. Or, jazz historian Linda Dahl puts it in her book on Mary Lou, Mourning Glory, “playing and developing jazz before the term became widely used.”
He left Pittsburgh at 22, but always carried his hometown roots with him as he played with everyone in the business: Charlie “Bird” Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong—the list goes on and on. He also owned nightclubs, developed big band combos and helped other musicians develop recordings of their music so they could have some sort of autonomy. Hines represents a change of pace in the early music world in that he had a business sensibility as well as his musician’s temperament—two qualities that don’t often go together.
For me, it is the combination of business acumen and musical talent as an innovator that makes Earl “Fatha” Hines an interesting framework for a potential hero. Oh, and as I was reading about him, I thought his nickname was pronounced as some offhanded way of saying “father” as he was a father of bebop. However it was my own father who corrected me on the pronunciation—highly nasal “Fat-ta,” meant as a name of respect. There are lots of stories about the origins of the nickname, but it certainly must be a corruption of father in some way—the man originated so much in the jazz world, that nothing else really makes sense.
Every child has a strange old lady story. When I was a child, my peculiar older lady lived two houses away. She put on a lot of airs and was very snobbish. Her young granddaughter used to play with my younger sister, and she was so distant, she couldn’t even be close to her own granddaughter.
At the time, I didn’t understand that I was bearing witness to the residuals of disappointed dreams. My father, a trained opera singer, knew this older lady in her associations with The National Negro Opera Company headed by Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson (pictured here) founded in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The lady had been a protégé of Madame Dawson’s and once was thought to be a very talented concert pianist who, ultimately didn’t go very far in the concert piano world because of her race and class. She ended up giving piano lessons in the public schools and made her contributions that way.
In the movie Black Nativity, they made repeated reference to Langston Hughes in his poem “Harlem” with the famous line of “What happens to a dream deferred?” In the case of a lot of African Americans, especially those who have been working to break down the color barriers of opera, there has been a lot of deferring to younger people and waiting for a better day.
Unfortunately, the older lady didn’t get very far. My father got a little further than she did and performed in some productions. The young singers now are going beyond his success. Still, it is slow going. I like to think of persevering pioneers like Madame Mary Cardwell Dawson as having great vision. She provided places for her singers to perform Carmen, Aida, Faust, La Traviata and other famous operas during the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s. The National Negro Opera Company was the first company allowed to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. Madame Dawson saw herself as providing training for the future teachers of those who would come and sing famous opera roles in integrated circumstances. She gave voice lessons, recruited young singers from churches, formed choirs and went on tours with them to show what they could do. Her choirs, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, won prizes in the 1930’s. Her contributions were recognized in 1961 when President Kennedy named her to the National Music Committee. She died the next year and the company didn’t last long beyond her lifetime.
There are times when dreams may seem very far away. However, we must take comfort from those who came before us. They had very little chance of seeing their dreams come true, but still found another way to make a contribution. We must carry on with their work so that their sacrifices are not forgotten.
Okay, I’ve endured enough jokes. I was asked today, “Why Pittsburgh? Is it because it is the pits?”
Ha! Ha! It’s not as if I haven’t heard that one before, since I’m originally from Pittsburgh ….
Then there were all of those jokes in the movie 42, which was a fine movie except for all the Pittsburgh jokes…
Fortunately, when you hail from Pittsburgh, The Steel City, we can take one on the chin (except for the record for the Steelers this season, they’ve got to do better).
Living away from my birthplace for a number of years has permitted me a perspective of how unique the city is. It is the perfect amalgamation of East coast, Midwest and Appalachian sensibilities. Then, when you throw race and the shifting immigrant population into all of that, the potential for story conflict is huge.
At the time of the beginning of The Great Migration, Pittsburgh was the sixth largest city in the country, a destination place.
And, unbeknownst to me, even as a steel-jawed native, it was quite the destination for jazz. I mean, I knew that Lena Horne grew up here, but it didn’t really register until I did my research.
The story of the development of jazz as well as many other musical forms here, reflects the story of America, a setting that is potentially rich with conflict. So over the next few weeks, I will highlight a few of the figures who put Pittsburgh music on the map and made the city a destination during the years of The Great Migration.
And by the way. If you must know, Pittsburgh is named after a Prime Minister of England, William Pitt the Elder, and no, he wasn’t the pits. He just happened to have an unfortunate name. And the name of the city may be unfortunate, but it is a very special city. Hope you come by and visit sometime.
PNC Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia) It’s only a little more than a decade old. Negro teams played in the Hill District or sometimes at Forbes Field in Oakland.
Okay, so it is about sports this week. Well, at least in part. The Pittsburgh Pirates are going to be in the playoffs for the first time since the Heartbreak of 1992 (if you have a heart, don’t ask a native Pittsburgher to talk about it—just take my word for it. If you need to know, google “Pittsburgh Pirates heartbreak 1992” and Wikipedia will tell you all about it). Their rise to playoff status this year is the fulfillment of my mother’s hopes over the past few years, so I will be rooting hard for them, even if they do have to play Atlanta—*sigh*.
Baseball has deep roots in Pittsburgh. Negro League baseball provided job opportunities for some men in The Great Migration. The hero of my story, A Champion’s Heart, joins the famous Pittsburgh Crawfords after being told he cannot box any longer for health and safety reasons. This team, and another Pittsburgh-area team, the Homestead Grays, dominated the national baseball scene for Negro players. During the 1930’s and 1940’s World War II, these two teams between them, won over a dozen league championships. Champ joins the team right in between the back to back Crawfords’ 1935 and 1936 winning seasons—exciting times for them. World War II and Jackie Robinson’s integration into to the Brooklyn Dodgers changed that opportunity.
When I last visited PNC Park in Pittsburgh two years ago, I was pleased to notice the various ways in which the Pirates organization paid tribute to the players and organizations of the Negro League teams that originated there. There are parts of the park named for Negro League players, and name plates of other players all around the park. I’ve been to Turner Field in Atlanta, and I did not see any similar kind of homage to the Atlanta Black Crackers. Sadly enough, the only homage I’ve ever seen to the Atlanta’s Negro League team were bits of history fashioned into the tabletops at the Whole Foods—now located in the same spot as their former ball park.
The Pirates organization has had problems with racism before, but when they built their beautiful new park, it is good to know that they built in an appreciation for a historical time when an African American man could not play ball for their organization. History must be acknowledged so that the same kinds of approaches and tactics do not happen again. And since they did such a good job of it, I can say with full-throated enthusiasm:
No, this post is not meant to address tonight’s football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears. Today, I want to address what these two cities meant as destinations for African Americans during The Great Migration. Certain parts of the South migrated to certain cities. Migrants from Mississippi tended to migrate to Chicago. Migrants from Georgia and Alabama, like my paternal grandparents, held sway in Pittsburgh. Many times, migrants decided where to go by how long their train money would take them. However, Pittsburgh and Chicago were considered destinations for jobs– Pittsburgh had the steel industry and Chicago had jobs the meat packing industry.
These two cities had a commonality in more than just their working class industries. They were the places where the story of The Great Migration was told throught the lens of black journalism, In Chicago, The Chicago Defender was the newspaper of note. Wilkerson in The Warmth of Other Sons, even goes so far as to credit The Defender with starting the Great Migration after some families in Selma Alabama left their homes in 1916 because of poor treatment in. Pittsburgh had the famous newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier. These newspapers were not just local entities; they were distributed nationally throughout the South. Puilman porters would bring copies of these papers onto trains into the South. In the 1930’s and 1940’s owners of various packing plants and mills would put ads in these two journalistic powerhouses knowing that African American readers would read the ads and come north as a cheap labor supply.
In numbers though, Chicago was king and drew the bigger share of migrants to its environs. Pittsburgh was the fourth biggest migration destination, after Philadelphia and Washington D.C. Although Chicago is the bigger city with the bigger national story to tell in terms of The Great Migration, I hope to change that with my stories. A lot happened in Pittsburgh as well.
However, I would be remiss not put in a plug for my hometown team. Let us also hope, that the Steelers are able to get their act together and win a game this week.
English: Steel mills and a long staircase in the South Side Slopes neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As we filled out tons of paperwork during the course of planning my mother’s funeral, I was a little bit surprised by my father’s insistence on filling out the documents by including what I thought was a long-ago discarded “Jr.” as part of his name. My father’s inclusion of the suffix reminds me that there are a few things to convey about my paternal grandfather as a participant of The Great Migration.
He was the first one to migrate northward in his family, taking with him my paternal grandmother, the first one to migrate from her family. He was lured by the promise of big money to be made in the steel mills. When they arrived in Pittsburgh in 1942, the onset of World War II meant that there was a great deal of money to be made in steel. The unions had gained a foothold in the first part of the twentieth century, but big business had made it a consistent desire to break those unions. The big bosses turned to the African Americans of the South to lure them to steel-producing cities like Pittsburgh, as strikebreakers.
Doubtless, he did not know he was taking someone’s job. All he knew was that he was getting paid more than he ever had, and worked hard to create a better life for his sons. Despite not being allowed to join the existing unions, African American steelworkers like my grandfather could see the horrible conditions in the mills and made inroads to the unions in different ways. According to Joe Trotter and Jared Day in their book Race and Renaissance, African American steelworkers created their own unions, but continuously sought to join predominately white unions on their own terms.
As the lowest in rank, African Americans had to work the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the mills. They were exposed to the most heat and noxious fumes. It was the fumes that got to my grandfather and weakened his lungs, rendering him an invalid for the last ten years of his life. I have the vaguest memories of a snappily-dressed, curmudgeonly man who sat in a corner in an overstuffed barcalounger. He would play with my sister and me by creating a monster’s lair behind the chair. He would come at us from opposite sides of the chair, and growl and threaten to get at us. We would squeal and shrink away from him in mock horror, never really wanting to escape his terrifying clutches.
I was too young to understand why he didn’t get up from the chair more often. Neal Huguley, Sr. was only 56 when he died, an age that seemed ancient to me when I was six, but now seems much too young an age to die. I now understand what that Jr. was for. My father, as well as my son, carry his name forward. We are all grateful beneficiaries of his great sacrifice for a better life.
Joe Louis’ headstone in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. I surely did not expect to see his picture in the funeral planning parlor
Funeral homes were always creepy places to me, but now that my mother has been associated with one, my perspective is different. In adjusting to this strange, new world, where my mother does not exist any longer as living breathing presence, I see that she is still teaching me new ways to look at things.
When the funeral director guided us downstairs to the room where example caskets were kept, I did not feel the same kind of stomach-churning trepidation that I would have felt just two weeks ago. Odd.
The parlor at this quiet and comfortable family- owned funeral home in Pittsburgh’s famed Hill District neighborhood was decorated with fascinating photo collages of black Pittsburghers in the Hill’s heyday as a “go-to” destination during The Great Migration. The most striking photo collage for me was the one right next to the casket room featuring about a dozen photos of boxers. Joe Louis was there, but there were other boxers I could not identify. As we selected a suitable resting place for my mother, it was easy to imagine my Champion Bates as one of those boxers. Those photo collages, taken by the esteemed Charles “Teenie” Harris and others, were so captivating I wanted to stay and examine each one of them.
Reflecting further, I remembered that the funeral business during the Great Migration provided a dignified profession for black males where they could earn a better than a decent living. Also, funeral directors have had a long history of being involved in activism. Planning parlors, just like the one I visited, were often used as gathering places for planning protests. Clueless law officials would not disturb anyone there. After all, no one wants to be in a funeral home–unless they have to be there.
It gets even better. In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson discusses the possibility of some type of underground that funeral directors regularly participated in the transport of “living” protesters out of the South when things got too hot. A perfectly sane journalist named Arrington High was smuggled out of Mississippi by coffin after his commitment in an insane asylum for publishing a pamphlet advocating integration. High’s case is the one that this “network” of funeral directors are willing to discuss. They stay mum on any other escapes. Is it possible that on the very worst day of my life I might have finally found a potential hero for my hairdresser character, Emerald Bledsoe?
Time and research will tell. In the meantime, keep teaching me, Mom. There’s always a lot to learn.
Česky: Různé druhy cukroví (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Today is Mother’s Day. It is a day that, despite its original intention, should be set aside to celebrate the hard job of raising children. As we celebrate these special people who have played a part in our lives, I would remind you if that person is alive—make the time to get the recipe for her specialty.
People who may have lost their mother or other caretaker in their life might know what I mean. I first began to understand the fragility of life when I was 21 and my Aunt Maxine died. She cooked all kinds of incredible food — she even catered many family weddings. With three daughters and a son, many people in the family assumed that her children would be the natural inheritors to all of those recipes. So we did not take the time to capture them for ourselves.
There is a tradition in Pittsburgh called the cookie table. Cookie tables appear at weddings and in the year before she died, Aunt Maxine had two of her children marry three months apart. As the caterer to these events, Aunt Maxine made sure to continue the tradition of the cookie table. And on that cookie table were the most buttery, tender and delicious jelly cookies. Some call them thumbprints. I gorged myself silly on those jelly cookies during those two weddings that year. Foolishly, I thought I would have many more opportunities to get jelly cookies. But about six months later, Aunt Maxine died. And with her passing, all of those recipes were gone. Her children did not have the recipes. No more jelly cookies. Ever.
So it is nice to use the day to celebrate that special female caretaker in your life. But also celebrate them by spending the time to get their specialty. She may tell you there is no recipe. Don’t listen. Court her to get it. Spend time with her to get it. Insist. Don’t take no for an answer. Specialty foods are a way that people live on, and are remembered.
At Aunt C’s funeral a few weeks ago, people spoke from pulpit about her egg pie. Cousin Ebonee has the recipe. When my mother-in-law died, she passed down her pound cake recipe to her daughter. My husband has the sweet potato pie recipe of another beloved aunt. My mother got Aunt June’s pie recipe before she died. I am the proud recipient of my father’s famous iced tea concoction and my mother’s Sally Lunn bread. I understand the importance of these specialties now, but I learned this lesson the hard way. I’ll never have another one of those jelly cookies again.
What specialty food would you miss from your special caretaker?