‘The Greatest Jazz Story Never Told:’ Pittsburgh’s vibrant history often overlooked

February 12, 2018 GMT

A film exploring the rich — but sometimes overlooked — history of jazz in Pittsburgh will premiere Feb. 15 on WQED.

“We Knew What We Had: The Greatest Jazz Story Never Told” explores the social conditions and historical events that came together to make Pittsburgh one of the leading contributors to the legacy of jazz music in the world, according to Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, whose MCG Jazz program produced the film.

The 60-minute program features interviews, historical photographs and more than 20 live performance clips of jazz masters George Benson, Ahmad Jamal, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Eckstine, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams and others — all Pittsburghers.

The title, director Jeff Sewald says, comes from something a couple of the old jazzmen said while being interviewed for the film. They knew that Pittsburgh was a great jazz city but didn’t think it had ever received its due.

As an example, Sewald says, noted documentarian Ken Burns didn’t even mention the Steel City in his 2000 miniseries, “Jazz.”

“That’s like missing Detroit if you’re talking about Motown,” Sewald says. “Pittsburgh’s place within the context of jazz history is just monumental. It’s one of a half-dozen cities worldwide that can lay claim to such a rich heritage — and the story is still continuing.”

A long time coming

The film was a long time in the making, says executive producer Marty Ashby, MCG Jazz founder and also a jazz guitarist. He’d first discussed the idea with Sewald after a mutual friend brought them together about 10 years ago.

Sewald is a Western Pennsylvania native and documentary filmmaker whose 2001 “Gridiron & Steel,” about the almost spiritual relationship Southwestern Pennsylvanians have with football, won a regional Emmy Award.

“At the time, there didn’t seem to be enough traction to make it fly,” Ashby says. “We’d already lost (double bassist) Ray Brown and (saxophonist) Stanley Turrentine, and about five or six years ago, I said, ‘That’s enough. We’re doing this.’

“We had to do it before we no longer had access to those primary resources, those great musicians like (guitarist) George Benson and (pianist) Ahmad Jamal. And this time, everyone bought into it.

“We went to George Benson’s house in Phoenix to do his interview,” Ashby says. “We interviewed Ramsey Lewis and some others when they were performing at MCG, which was a really great resource. They told us their stories and their connections to Pittsburgh.

“It was a fascinating process. We learned that, for the 15 musicians we covered, there were 30 more we needed to do. It was like peeling an onion — it revealed what we didn’t even know.”

A great story

“Most Pittsburghers aren’t aware of this great story — I know I wasn’t aware,” Sewald says. “Back in the day, some of these musicians told us, you could play a different place every night. At one time, there were 30 clubs in the Hill District. But a lot of things conspired to bring the jazz scene down.”

Sewald says one thing was the construction of the Civic Arena in the Lower Hill District, a process that began in 1956 and dislocated about 1,500 mostly African-American families and more than 400 businesses.

“In the ’40s and ’50s there were a great many jazz venues in the Hill and all around Pittsburgh,” Ashby says. “The Civic Arena was completed in 1961 and, just prior to that, as you know, the destruction of the neighborhood had a major impact on the Hill District. Many of the clubs were not able to relocate, yet jazz still continued in other venues — there weren’t as many, however.”

“I got a chance to meet a lot of African-American people (while making the documentary), and it was astounding to hear them tell about their experiences,” Sewald says. “It’s a great story for the African-American community. A lot of our music, not just jazz, grew out of the African-American tradition. Ahmad (Jamal) says jazz is American classical music.”

Jamal’s story was one that Sewald found particularly intriguing: One day when Jamal’s uncle was playing the piano, he invited the then-3-year-old to try his hand.

“He said he got up and played the piece note by note, and the rest was history,” Sewald says.

Similarly, George Benson was playing in local clubs soon after he was heard playing on a Hill District street corner at age 7.

Still a vibrant scene

But the documentary isn’t just about a bygone era, Ashby says.

“It’s important to note that the music is still very vibrant here,” he says. “Not to give too much away, but the film ends with a short performance of some of the young lions from Pittsburgh who are playing all over the world.”

And not all of the great players left Pittsburgh for brighter lights and bigger cities.

“It’s important that the legacy is continuing,” Ashby says. “There are stories like Joe Negri, Roger Humphries, Johnny Costa, Dwayne Dolphin, musicians who stayed in Pittsburgh and carried on the tradition. They could have gone anywhere, and they decided to stay here, nurturing the next generation. Of the many stories, that’s the one that resonated with me.”

“We Knew What We Had” is being distributed by American Public Television with presenting station WQED Multimedia for broadcast on television, locally, nationally and internationally.

Ashby says that more than 300 stations have committed to airing the film. It also will be entered into national and international film festivals and presented via other public and private screenings.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750, smcmarlin@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shirley_trib.