Pittsburgh was once home to Andrew Carnegie, George Westinghouse, and the Mellon family. It was the birthplace of August Wilson, the great playwright, and pop artist Andy Warhol. Perhaps lesser known is the fact that it was also a breeding ground for many world-class musical talents such as Earl “Fatha” Hines, Billy Eckstine, Erroll Garner, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Mary Lou Williams and Billy Strayhorn (to whose family I sold newspapers when I was a kid). As an aspiring jazz musician, I was lucky enough to grow up in one of the best jazz cities in the world.
People often call me a prodigy, to which I always say, “Well, if the shoe fits…” I started playing piano at age 3, which is very unusual. As the story goes, my Uncle Lawrence was sitting in our family’s living room at an old upright piano that my mother had purchased because she wanted to learn to play, although she never did because of her full-time job doing domestic work and the demands of raising four kids — two boys and two girls, of which I was the youngest. Anyway, one day, my uncle was playing my mom’s piano and he started teasing me. “Can you play this, young man?” he asked. Well, I sat down next to him and played just what he had played, note for note — and the rest is history. You see, miracles really do happen, especially in the “Miracle City.”
It’s true that I always had an affinity for the piano, and I’ve explored the instrument fully. I’m still exploring it now, even at 87 years of age. Coming up in Pittsburgh, I had the best teachers and fine mentors. I began studying with Mary Cardwell Dawson, who founded the National Negro Opera Company and was responsible for placing the first African Americans in the Metropolitan Opera. When she left for Washington, I studied with James Miller in the Hill District. Few people remember James Miller, I’m afraid, but he was a good teacher and a master musical technician.
I was born and raised in the East Liberty section of town and attended elementary school there, with the likes of Dodo Marmarosa and Erroll Garner, great jazz pianists in their own right, who were both a bit older than me. After that, I went on to Westinghouse High School and played piano in the “K-Dets,” under the tutelage of one of jazz music’s great local enthusiasts and educators, Carl McVicker. It should be noted that the K-Dets were one of the first high school orchestras anywhere to play jazz, or what I call “American classical music.” I coined that term some years ago because that’s just what jazz is. Our music has contributed much to the global musical village.
The biggest contributing factor to my eventual success in music and in life, too, was my mother. I look at her picture every day. She worked hard raising us kids and through her long hours of domestic work, but still found the time and resources to ensure my music lessons. I think mostly about her when I think about Pittsburgh. My father labored every day in an open-hearth steel mill in Homestead for 23 years. I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in his job. It was hot, dirty and dangerous. And it was a bit unsettling when I learned that, as a young teenager, I was making more money from playing music at local clubs than my father was for making steel.
At 14, I joined the local musicians’ union and continued performing, but chose to leave Pittsburgh at just 17 for a life on the road. Looking back, maybe I left home too soon, but I did so with another Pittsburgher named George Hudson, who had moved to St. Louis and founded one of the most important jazz orchestras in the world. Sadly, as an African American in this society, George didn’t have the opportunities that were afforded people such as Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey. Nonetheless, we toured with Dinah Washington and The Ravens, and I turned 18 in Atlantic City while we were holding forth at The Club Harlem there. My first concert at Carnegie Hall was in 1952 for Duke Ellington’s 25th Anniversary. On the bill were Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and me, and I’m the only headliner from that concert who’s still alive. In time, I “graduated” from “Hudson University,” but never did get to Juilliard, which was the real school of my choice. I just kept touring. I got my “PhD” on the road. My degree came from the streets.
When I think back on my upbringing in Pittsburgh, my mind floods with memories of the Musicians’ Club on Wylie Avenue, where musicians from all over the world came and played. It was a treat, for example, when drummer Joe Harris and bassist Ray Brown, both born Pittsburghers, hit town and came to the club to sit in on our allnight jam sessions. What an education that was for a kid like me. And who could forget The Crawford Grill, The Bamboola or The Washington Club, the after-hours joint where I met the legendary pianist Art Tatum when I was just 14 and working with Harold Holt, the sax player. But international stars aside, many great musicians either never left or left and returned to Pittsburgh. Johnny Costa, who played piano for “Mr. Rogers,” was one such musician. He was a phenomenal talent. And then there was Dodo Marmarosa. The world has forgotten him, but he played on some of Charlie Parker’s early records, “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” for one. He also played with Artie Shaw. And there were many more, too.
I usually don’t do interviews. After all, I’m a musician and most of what I have to say I say with the piano. Yes, I have an Arabic name, but generally don’t discuss religion or philosophy publicly because life has taught me that if you tarry and talk to fools, sometimes you end up sounding like one yourself. But basically, I get my approach to life from the Holy Qur’an. I belong to the Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam. Our motto is, “Love for all; hatred for none.” I started studying religious philosophy when I was just 21 years old. I accepted Islam because it took me from darkness into light and gave me direction. Whenever I veer off the straight-and-narrow, that’s when I make my mistakes, and I’ve made a lot of them in my life, believe me. Today, I try to be a guiding force for young people, particularly musicians, offering them the benefit of 87 years of life experience. But I can only lead them to water. I can’t make them drink. The Christian Bible says “Do not…cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet…” Young or old, some people wouldn’t recognize a pearl of wisdom if they held it in their hand, no matter what you say or do.
“I usually don’t do interviews. After all, I’m a musician and most of what I have to say I say with the piano.”
As a successful touring musician, I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled the world for many years and, in doing so, I’ve learned some things. I always tell kids that the most important words in life are “Yes” and “No.” You must know when and how to say “Yes,” and when and how to say “No.” Most young people haven’t the ability to discern when or how to say one or the other. I tell them to say “Yes” to education and “No” to the streets, because most people are not equipped to handle street life, but they don’t know it. And while there are some deficiencies in all institutions of higher learning, the positives far outweigh the negatives. On the streets, young people can easily get distracted to their detriment, unless they’re fortunate, as I was. My mother and my philosophy saved me; otherwise, I’d have been dead many years ago. Look at what happened to Charlie “Bird” Parker, a genius who changed the music industry. He was a true revolutionary, as was Dizzy Gillespie. But Dizzy was able to outfox, survive and benefit. Bird succumbed to the streets, to the distraction of drugs. Billie Holiday did the same. On the streets, if you’re not grounded spiritually, you’re going to be overwhelmed and end up in trouble.
Personally, I believe that people’s lives are affected 80 percent by their outside environment. (The other 20 percent is what they get at home.) And the effect of that 80 percent can be devastating if they don’t have the proper grounding. Sure, even in universities, kids are going to have problems. But university life is far preferable to life on the streets. And if you’re a musician, your chances of survival are better if you have more than one “exit door.” I always tell young musicians to learn how to perform, to conduct, to compose and to teach so that, if and when one door closes, all they have to do is open another. Think of it this way: If a fire breaks out in a building and there isn’t more than one exit, people are going to get trampled. The bottom line for youngsters is to go to school and acquire tools to work with. If they do, things should work out.
Today in America, we have civilization, but we have very little culture. And without culture a civilization is ultimately doomed. The U.S. is not like Egypt or China. As a nation, we’re just a baby when compared to those ancient societies. In my view, the only indigenous culture we really have here, other than Native American art, is this music we call “jazz,” which isn’t promoted much. How often do you see Duke Ellington on television? How often do our kids see Billie Holiday or Art Tatum? If you asked someone about Louis Armstrong, would they know who he was? But they know all about Beyonce. They know all the rappers. And I’m not saying that’s bad, necessarily. But you’d have to travel to Europe to see Duke, Billie or Art. In America, jazz artists are strangers in their hometowns. Thankfully, Wynton Marsalis was able to establish “Jazz at Lincoln Center,” through his celebrity and a lot of hard work. I must hand it to him: He made it happen. But my point is that there should be “Lincoln Centers” all over this country. Today, we have only two prominent jazz institutions in the U.S. — “Jazz at Lincoln Center” and “San Francisco Jazz.” That’s a sad commentary on the state of affairs in our country, culturally speaking.
Essentially, I’m now retired. I performed my last concert in 2014 in Prague. But I hardly ever say “never,” so I do go out and play on special occasions, from time to time. Ironically, I’m busier now than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m doing so many things. I’m putting out a transcription book. I’m helping to launch a couple of young musicians in whose work and talents I believe. I’ve been all over the world and people still want me to perform in various places. In fact, I just finished a studio project last year in Paris. People wanted me to come and record there so I produced a project called “Marseille,” a tribute to one of my favorite French cities. They opened up their opera house for me, and it was the first time they’d presented “American classical music” there.
Long before you reach my age, you must cultivate an ability to examine and understand not only the history of others, but your own history as well. As the saying goes, “How do you know where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’ve been?” If you can look at and honestly assess your life and work, you’ll see the good you’ve done, and the not-so-good, too. In my case, I remember my best performances, but would rather forget the heartaches I gave my mother. I miss her, even now, and pray for her every day. Long ago, she left this “world of illusion,” as we all will. None of us will get out of here alive, so we must prepare for the “real world” that comes next. The ups and downs of life are worthy of only a chuckle. Physical and spiritual health are your most valuable possessions. If you are blessed with good health and are left with a chuckle, you know you’ve arrived.