Original Document
Original Document
Nelson Harrison and Charles Austen on the Pittsburgh Jazz Scene in the mid-1900s.

Nelson Harrison: The Crawford Grill didn't pay [hardly] any money. It was just the place to play. The last time I did a full-time gig at the Grill was in 1975 –I played with Joe Harris. They would hire you for a week; you'd play for six days or nine days. If you'd get a Grill gig, you'd get it for that length of time; it wouldn't be a different band every night. You can really work into something like that. We played nine days at the Grill, and the [band] leader made $103 for nine days–for the whole nine days! Sidemen made $68. That was the pay scale for the Grill, nine days, $68, [but] it wasn't jive because everybody who was anybody was in your audience.

The music scene is part of the community. It was like the hub of the community; everybody related something in their life to the music. I mean music wasn't one of those side things that you do when you got nothing to do, and you're out playing ball and you're out doin' all these other things, then, "Oh, yeah, let's play some music." Or, "Let's go see what the musicians are doing." No, musicians were the center of everything – they were the center of the grapevine, the center of social life.

There was a piano in most every house, at least most black homes had an old upright or something. It may or may not have been tuned, but you could tickle the ivories in almost any house you went to. Usually someone in the house played, too, so people would get together for parties and stuff and end up singing and playing and pulling out instruments. That was your entertainment: Otherwise you'd have the radio because we didn't have TV, and when somebody was practicing and you'd hear them across the street or down the block, you never minded. You'd be listening to see how good they were getting. There was this young guy, a sax player, when I lived up in Belmar Gardens – Gordy. Gordy Metz. He played with a rhythm and blues band and ... he used to watch me out the window when he'd be practicing and hope I would hear hear him. He lived about two blocks away – he'd be watching me to see if l'd look up. We never complained about somebody practicing his or her instrument! Now people yell, "Cut that noise down, I'm trying to sleep!" If it's music – if it's anything other than music it's OK today. If they're shooting guns, they don't say anything, but you get cussed at if you're practicing.

Charles Austen: Well part of that is the musicians' fault. Musicians in the past carried themselves with respect. The environment was so competitive that you had to practice hard all the time, so the musicians played better. Musicians also dressed well–it wasn't like today where guys get on the bandstand wearing jeans and a T-shirt, looking like they just got done digging a hole somewhere. My first tailor-made suit was because I was a musician. You dressed for a gig like you were going to church. So when you present yourself in this fashion and you can play, you are necessarily going to get more respect.

Nelson Harrison: When they took music out of the schools, they also took respect for music out of two or three generations of people coming around. They didn't have respect for it, because the schools didn't either. Money stopped flowing towards music, and started flowing towards what people respected. There were athletes all of a sudden who were making nearly as much as you were [as a musician]. Up until then, musicians earned more than most of the top athletes.

Credit:  "Card-Carrying Embers," Pittsburgh City Paper (August 8-15, 2001): 21-22.
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