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Jazz Guitar in the Steel City



JGT guest contributor Joe Barth takes a look at the many famous musicians from the greater Pittsburgh area. 

Pittsburgh has been long known for its steel mills and historical place in the industrial revolution.  It also has a long, rich connection with jazz music. Located between Chicago and New York, it was and continues to be a place where jazz musicians perform while on the road. In the 30s, ’40s and 50’s young musicians could see their favorite musicians perform just about any night of the week.

Many famous musicians came from or spent some time growing up in the greater Pittsburgh area.  Drummers Art Blakey, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Kenny Clark, bassists Ray Brown and Paul Chambers, pianists Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamel, and Earl “Fatha” Hines, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and composer Billy Strayhorn to name a few.  The two biggest guitarists that call Pittsburgh home are Joe Pass and George Benson. Embed from Getty Images

George Benson grew up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. At age seven he made a few dollars playing ukulele at a corner drugstore, at age eight he took up the guitar and by age nine he was performing and recording. As a young person he was hired by organist Jack McDuff and by age twenty-one was recording for Columbia records.  Of course, he became a superstar in 1976 with his album Breezin’.

Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalaqua was born in New Jersey but grew up just outside of Pittsburgh in Johnstown.  Joe Pass was a working guitarist by age fourteen.  He is most well-known for his solo jazz guitar playing best expressed in the album Virtuoso.

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Born in Pittsburgh in 1946, Jimmy Ponder, was drawn to jazz guitar when he heard guitarist Thornel Schwartz playing with organist Jimmy McGriff. As a high school student, he was skilled enough to sit in with organist Charles Earland during a gig in Pittsburgh.  Earland liked what he heard and hired Jimmy Ponder six months after he graduated from high school.  Ponder eventually moved to Philadelphia and then on to New York where he played and recorded with some of the greatest names in jazz of that time.  Ponder died in Pittsburgh in 2013 of lung cancer.

Ron Anthony grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to New York to find work as a guitarist.  He later moved to the Los Angeles area. Ron played with numerous artists most notably George Shearing and was a guitarist in Frank Sinatra’s band for the singer’s last twelve years as a performer.

Joe Negri is the current Dean of jazz guitarists in Pittsburgh.  A world-class guitarist, he is best known as Handyman Negri from the Mister Roger’s Neighborhood television show. He often incorporated the guitar in his routine and had many “greats” like Kenny Burrell as guests on the show.  Joe can also be heard performing in the finest jazz clubs in the city.

Guitarist Marty Ashby came to Pittsburgh to work in the administrative office of the Pittsburgh Symphony.  A gifted guitarist and concert promoter he soon was working for Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild promoting their MCG Jazz concert series.  It wasn’t long before he was both promoting and performing in jazz performances around the area.

Ken Karsh is a “first call” Pittsburgh guitarist who has performed with organists Jimmy McGriff and Joey DeFrancesco, singers Bobby McFerrin and Bernadette Peters, and a host of other world-class musicians.  

Eric Susoeff is great in every musical setting but especially shines with his Salsamba Latin Jazz Group. They perform authentic Latin-American rhythms with the harmonic and melodic sophistication of contemporary American jazz.

Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild has its MCG Jazz Series that brings world-class jazz artists to Pittsburgh for its concert series.  Guitarists like Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, and Mike Stern perform on their stage regularly.  Over the past 30 years, greats like Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Tal Farlow, John Abercrombie, and countless others have performed on the MCG stage.

Every June the city hosts the Pittsburgh Jazz Live International Festival where world-class jazz artists perform around outdoor stages in the downtown area.  All of this is free to the public.

Every city suffers from less live music in its eating establishments and many of the famous Pittsburgh clubs like the Crawford Grill and James Street no longer have music.  Jergel’s Rhythm Grille is one establishment on the northside where one can still regularly experience great live music.

The Mary Pappert School of Music at Duquesne University has a fine studio and jazz guitar program under the leadership of professors Bill Purse and Mark Koch. One can find the finest teaching in jazz guitar on both the graduate and undergraduate levels.  Pittsburgh guitarists Joe Negri and Eric Suseoff also both teach there. 

The University of Pittsburgh’s jazz program became quite well known under the tenure of saxophonist Nathan Davis.  John Maione oversees their jazz guitar department.

Fifty miles north of Pittsburgh there is a world-class jazz program at Slippery Rock University. The program is made up of outstanding faculty such as saxophonist Jason Kush and drummer David Glover.  Ken Karsh teaches in the jazz guitar department.

With its rich history, Pittsburgh continues to have a great impact on the jazz art form and jazz guitar in America.

Jazz Guitar Today would like to thank Dr. Joe Barth for his contribution. Dr. Barth is the author of Voices in Jazz Guitar: Great Performers Tell about Their Approach to Playing (Mel Bay) available at and elsewhere. 

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