Connect with us

Artist Features

New Book From Colter Harper, “Jazz in the Hill: Nightlife and Narratives of a Pittsburgh Neighborhood”



JGT contributor Jonathan Ross sits down with jazz guitarist and ethnomusicologist Colter Harper to discuss his new book about Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

Pittsburgh is a city rich with Jazz history. Nestled at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers, it has produced some of the biggest names in Jazz, including George Benson, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Eckstine, Art Blakey, Billy Strayhorn, Ray Brown, Errol Garner, Paul Chambers, Mary Lou Williams and many more. It’s a city rightfully proud of its history, and its jazz practitioners are very aware of those who paved the way.

One of the Jazz guitarists currently on the scene is Colter Harper. He is a scholar in Jazz research, an alum of Rusted Root, and an author of the brand new book Jazz in the Hill: Nightlife and Narratives of a Pittsburgh Neighborhood, which chronicles the rich Jazz history of the Pittsburgh neighborhood called the Hill District, where George Benson and many others cut their teeth. I sat down with Colter to discuss his latest work.

Jonathan Ross: Could you please tell the readers more about who you are and what you do?

Colter Harper: I’m an ethnomusicologist with a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, and I’m also a musician working mostly as a guitar player mostly around Pittsburgh. I moved here in 1995 while in high school, and got an introduction to Jazz as a living art form. I had heard it on record before, and wanted to know more, and took it upon myself to learn how it worked. This led to graduate work,  and I wanted to answer the questions of what Jazz meant to Pittsburgh, and its social contexts, as well as how Jazz and the jazz clubs made us feel about the city.

JR: Regionally, Jazz is a bit different everywhere you go. How would you characterize “Pittsburgh” jazz?

CH: I don’t have a good answer for that because it seems that everyone who comes from Pittsburgh is completely unique in what they’ve offered the canon. It’s remarkable the number of people who come from here. If you look at the music of all those individuals, is there a unified sound, other than it’s swinging, deeply rooted in the blues, but also adventurous in terms of what’s possible in interpreting the Great American Songbook? What seems to have survived and what seems to have become its identity is that Art Blakey/Horace Silver sound from 1956-early 60’s in terms of what’s expected of the players here: hard swinging, hard bop, sax/trumpet-driven concept of those songs and that way of playing. It’s not like in Chicago where there’s more of a tradition of experimental jazz. 

JR: You used to study with the great Jimmy Ponder, someone understated in the world of Jazz Guitar.

CH: I met him in high school and used to call him “Uncle Ponder”. He would always say he’s not a bebop player. He had an orchestral approach to the guitar. Everything he played was thought of as a big band orchestra, by taking chords, melody and rhythm and putting it together in exciting ways that made his whole performance develop. He was complete with a full band or solo because his whole concept was about playing a song as a conversation between all those elements, whereas most guitarists might play as a saxophone player or piano player comping with the left hand.

JR: You were close with Jimmy. Take me through these times with him.

CH: I would go to his house usually on a Sunday. He didn’t have a car so sometimes I’d bring him groceries he needed. He would cook dinner and we would spend a lot of time just sitting and listening to music. Then we’d play. It wasn’t like showing up and having your lesson and leaving. It was this bigger picture thing of music feeding your soul and body. Then he’d ask me to play a blues. I’d get about 10 seconds into it before he’d correct me for not swinging hard enough. Not in a mean way, just saying that it wasn’t good enough. He wanted you to move him, not just demonstrate that you could do something technical. He wanted you to be able to emotionally impact someone. He wanted you to be able to emotionally improve someone who just got off a 12-hour shift at a steel mill. If you couldn’t do that, he didn’t see the point.

JR: How did you choose the Hill District as the topic of your book?

CH: I originally thought about writing a book on “Pittsburgh Jazz” because it’s a clearer concept. However, I wanted to go into detail about a neighborhood’s relationship to this music, which allowed me to focus more on details and connections to specific artists, clubs and scenes. It’s also the most important neighborhood for Jazz in Pittsburgh. It’s where a lot of artists developed and the location of its most important venues. It’s historically African-American, so I wanted to connect the music to the struggles that neighborhood has had in Pittsburgh. It’s been the most economically divested, and has faced some of the biggest challenges because of racism and public policy, all of these forces acting on it, empty buildings, and devaluation of property. And I wanted to talk about that history through the music.

Colter Harper

JR: Can you name some Pittsburgh guitar players that people may not know about that you may want to give a shout out to?

CH: Joe Negri, who most people may know from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. He’s on the level of these great canonic players. Mark Strickland is incredible. John Shannon has always been heads above everyone else, even when we were teenagers. Matt Heulitt just moved here from San Francisco. There are too many to mention.

JR: For people trying to learn the repertoire, or trying to train your ear, what is your approach?

CH: If you don’t know a song, you can go on to Spotify or YouTube, and get 5 versions of it. Focus on the bass player and try to write out what they’re doing, and compare the different ways the bass player supports the harmony and melody. We tend to think from the top down as guitar players but the bass is so important to the sound of a chord. And when you play a melody, you should be phrasing the melody as a vocalist does; where they take a breath and their vibrato. 

JR: And finally, what gear are you using?

CH: I really like my Hofner Verythin. It has a spruce top so it sounds great acoustically and there’s something very responsive to it that I really like. I usually play it through an old Fender Deluxe. 

Subscribe to Jazz Guitar Today – it’s FREE!

Continue Reading

Join the JGT Newsletter

Featured Luthiers