A MUSIC LEGACY
Among the many reasons to celebrate Westinghouse High School is the influence that their alums have had on the world of jazz music both in Pittsburgh and beyond. Under the tutelage of Westinghouse music teacher Jane P. Alexander and music director Carl McVicker, students like Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Billy Strayhorn, and Mary Lou Williams trained to become musicians and grew up to become jazz legends. This Spotify Playlist features the music of Westinghouse graduates who are celebrated in the Hall of Fame.
In a 1995 interview with WKCR Radio, Ahmad Jamal said that McVicker was “quite innovative.” McVicker had four ensembles; the Beginners Orchestra, the Junior Orchestra, the Senior Orchestra, and the K-Dets, which he started in 1946. Jamal continued, “It was unique, because this was the all-American Classical/Jazz band, and it was quite unusual for it to be in a high school at that time on such an organized basis.”
The K-Dets, pictured above in 1944. Melvin Carb, Fred Foxx, Louis Zegarelli, Dolores Cyphers, Lee Bocchiachio, Marguerite Dodson, Val "Moke" Capone, Bob Doran, Ahmad Jamal (formerly Fritz "Freddy" Jones); back row: Catherine Moore, Jack Strong, Clyde Davidson, director Carl McVicker, Gwendolyn Baylor, Richard Adams, Carl Robinson, William "Bud" Stark, and Jerry Elliot; also included is Conrad "Connie" Snyder. (Teenie Harris Collection)
McVicker recognized that his students sometimes came from poverty. At a state orchestra competition, when another director claimed that Westinghouse students got to train with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, McVicker replied, “My kids were glad enough to have enough to eat. Some of them couldn’t afford to change their strings.” (Heinz History Center)
Erroll Garner was born in Pittsburgh in the early 1920s. He and his twin brother were the youngest of six. The Garner’s had a piano, and Miss Madge Bowman came to their house to give the children piano lesson. Miss Madge soon realized that Erroll could easily play by ear and had no need to read the music.
An accomplished musician by the time he reached Westinghouse High School, Garner came under the training of music director Carl McVicker, who encouraged Garner's talent while respecting what made him unique. McVicker believed that Garner should avoid formal piano instruction as it "would corrupt his extraordinary talents."
In 1944, Garner left Pittsburgh for New York City where worked as an accompanist for Billy Daniels and Billie Holiday. He worked as a touring musician for a decade until his album "Concert by the Sea" became a best seller, launching him into stardom. He is best remembered for his song “Misty.”
Billy Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio in 1915 and moved to Pittsburgh in 1920 where his family settled in Homewood. As a young boy, Strayhorn worked various odd jobs to save up the money needed to take music lessons with teacher Charlotte Catlin at Volkweins Music Store. While at Westinghouse High School, Strayhorn studied harmony with music teacher Jane P. Alexander and worked his way up to first pianist in the orchestra.
In 1935, after he graduated, Strayhorn wrote the music, lyrics, and skits for a musical titled Fantastic Rhythm that was first performed at Westinghouse High School. It went on to be a hit at black theaters across Western Pennsylvania and had a cast that included Billy Eckstine and Erroll Garner. One song from the show titled “My Little Brown Book” was later recorded by Duke Ellington.
Strayhorn played shows around Pittsburgh in a trio called The Mad Hatters that played every weekend at Billy Ray's club in East Liberty. He was also a piano player at Woogie Harris's club in the Hill District.
In 1938, Duke Ellington played a week of shows at the Stanley Theater. After Ellington heard a recording of Strayhorn’s music, he commissioned Billy to write lyrics for a new composition in one day. Ellington was pleased with the results and gave Strayhorn $20 and directions to his apartment in New York City. Strayhorn used the directions to write his best known song, “Take the A Train.”
Ahmad Jamal was born Frederick Russell Jones. His father worked in the open hearth furnaces of a local mill and his mother was a maid. He grew up just across the Larimer Avenue Bridge and became a piano prodigy at a young age. When he was just three years old, he walked by his Uncle Lawrence playing piano, and his uncle asked, “Can you do what I'm doing?” Jamal recalled, “I played everything he played. And the rest is history."
At seven years old, Jamal began taking lessons from Mary Cardwell Dawson, the founding director of the National Negro Opera Company. He started going to the union hall of Local 471 of the American Federation of Musicians in the Hill District. Pittsburgh musicians would gather there for what Jamal called “historic jam sessions.” He lamented that the building was not preserved, adding, “A lot of history in that building.”
As a teenager, he attended Westinghouse High School where he was a member of Carl McVicker’s K Dets which performed at hospitals and canteens during World War II. In 1948, one year after his graduation from high school, Jamal began touring with the George Hudson Orchestra. In Chicago, he converted to Islam, changed his name, and started a band that later became known as the Ahmad Jamal Trio.