City jazz icon Walt Harper dies

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Walt Harper, an iconic local jazz pianist and club owner who was dubbed the "Prom King" in the 1950s because of the number of college and high school dances at which his band performed, died yesterday, apparently of a heart attack.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Walt Harper at the piano in his Point Breeze home, 2003.
Click photo for larger image.
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Walt Harper memories

Mr. Harper's age was unavailable because he wasn't fond of talking about it, and neither is his wife, Maggie.

"He was ageless," said Mrs. Harper. "He always said he wasn't as old today as he would be tomorrow."

Mrs. Harper said her husband died en route to UPMC Shadyside.

"This was all of a sudden," said Mrs. Harper. "He wasn't feeling too well the last few days, but he wasn't in bad health. He had problems with his knees from playing tennis."

For more than 50 years, Mr. Harper played jazz the way his fans wanted to hear it. As a pianist and composer, he remained faithful to the gentler side, never exploring the music's more esoteric territories. His repertoire was varied, but his most enduring song was "Satin Doll," a tune he played so often that most people thought it was he, not Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn, who wrote the tune.

"Cigarette holder -- which wigs me
"Over her shoulder -- she digs me
"Out cattin' that Satin doll"

Mr. Harper, who resided in Point Breeze, was also a celebrity tennis player and savvy club owner whose most famous venue was the Attic in Market Square.

He presented jazz festivals, workshops and cultural programs, recorded eight albums and appeared numerous times on national and local television, with his group or alone. He hosted a PBS special, "Walt Harper at Fallingwater," filmed at the Kaufmann home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The program aired nationally and received an Emmy nomination.

In 2001, Mr. Harper received the Mellon Jazz Community Award and the Harry Schwalb Excellence in the Arts Award. Given by Pittsburgh Magazine, the award honors artists for taking risks, thinking beyond themselves, attaining excellence in their fields and educating new audiences.

"He was a great band leader," said Dr. Nathan Davis, head of the University of Pittsburgh's jazz studies program. "When I was still living in Paris I heard of Walt. He had an international reputation. When I got here, Walt was the only guy who had a festival in Pittsburgh. It was sponsored by the Catholic Diocese.

"Many times, you have musicians who are not great band leaders, but Walt played correct. He was like Count Basie. He sacrificed his playing for the band. He always maintained a great band."

"He was great to be around," said local trombonist Nelson Harrison, who worked with Mr. Harper from 1967 to 1970.

"We played about 12 jobs a week. Walt's band always had a unique sound and that sound will never be reproduced in Pittsburgh. It was an easy lounge sound that put people at ease. Walt just knew how to entertain the public."

Mr. Harper grew up in Schenley Heights, the son of a contractor. But young Walt showed no interest in the business and turned to music when he arrived at Schenley High School.

He played valve trombone in the all-city band and the Swinging Five, a jazz group that he co-led with pioneering bebop bassist Ray Brown, who remained Mr. Harper's close friend and musical collaborator until Mr. Brown's death in July 2002.

Mr. Harper and Mr. Brown would play hooky from school and go to Errol Garner's house to listen to him practice the piano.

After graduating from high school in 1947, Mr. Harper studied at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute and the University of Pittsburgh for two years. Then he took a 10-piece band, which included his brother and saxophonist Nate, on the road from 1949 to 1954.

The group appeared all over the East and Midwest with such artists as Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan and George Shearing. But Mr. Harper never cared much for the rigors of the road.

"He absolutely loved entertaining," said Mrs. Harper. "He could have stayed on the road but he never liked that life. He loved Pittsburgh and made a conscious decision to play Pittsburgh."

In 1958, Mr. Harper's band started performing at the Crawford Grill in the Hill District. His popularity with college-age students brought many of them to the Grill, helping to integrate the Hill District with music.

Mr. Harper remained at the Grill until 1969 when he opened his club, Walt Harper's Jazz Attic, in Market Square.

The Attic, located one flight above a state liquor store, provided a healthy shot in the arm to Downtown nightlife.

"Until Walt Harper came along, Market Square was a seedy space for derelicts and pigeons," said retired Pittsburgh Press columnist Roy McHugh in a previous interview. "Actually, Maury Wills got there before Harper did, but his Stolen Base lasted only as long as his Pirates career, which was brief.

"The Stolen Base offered banjo music. Walt Harper, leading his own band from a piano stool, played jazz -- the commercial, danceable variety -- for the purist there was always someone like Stan Getz, Ramsey Lewis or Dizzy Gillespie."

The club also showcased groups like the Modern Jazz Quartet, Joe Williams and Cannonball Adderley, and on any given night athletes like Terry Bradshaw, L.C. Greenwood and Connie Hawkins would stop in.

After seven years and a messy legal split with his partners, Mr. Harper sold the Attic to devote more time to his music.

In the mid-1970s, Dan Rooney, owner and president of the Steelers, hired Mr. Harper's band to perform at all home games. The band performed until 2002.

One of Mr. Harper's greatest Steeler moments occurred in 1979, when the Steelers were Super Bowl-bound. Mr. Harper was vacationing in Barbados when the loudspeaker boomed over the beach that he was wanted at the office. It was Mr. Rooney telling him to return to Pittsburgh.

Speaking from his office yesterday, Mr. Rooney said he knew Mr. Harper long before he hired him to play for the Steelers.

"He was a good friend," said Mr. Rooney. "He used to say that I was good friend but not good when it came to being paid."

Mr. Rooney said the friendship spanned more than 50 years.

"We used to go to Ligonier, and he would play at a place called the Pirate's Den," continued Mr. Rooney. "I got to know him, and when he opened the Attic, I used to go there. He played at my daughter's wedding and for my 40th wedding anniversary. He introduced me to Wynton Marsalis and a lot of other wonderful people."

Mr. Harper didn't stay out of the music business for long.

In February 1983, he opened Harper's, a 148-seat restaurant below street level at One Oxford Centre. Unlike the Attic, Harper's had a high-priced chef and was open for lunch and dinner. The menu featured 40 items, including the Stan Getz fish sandwich, the Stanley Turrentine tuna salad, the George Benson club, the Dizzy Gillespie charbroiled hamburger and the Carmen McRae charbroiled chicken sandwich.

The restaurant, which stayed open until 1988, drew corporate clientele for such performers as Nancy Wilson, Dave Brubeck, Max Roach and Mr. Marsalis.

That was in keeping with Mr. Harper's goal of removing jazz from its traditional setting of smoke-filled rooms.

"He did so much for jazz lovers and those who weren't jazz lovers," said Tony Mowod, host of the "Nightside" jazz program on WDUQ-FM.

"He satisfied people with both his music and personality. I was the daytime manager of Harper's. It was a class place. He brought all the big-name players in. Those people loved Walt as much as we Pittsburghers loved him."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Harper is survived by a daughter, Sharynn Harper of New York City, and a sister, Wilda Sellers of Richmond, Va.

Visitation is Monday and Tuesday from 2 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. at John A. Freyvogel, Inc., 4900 Centre Ave., Oakland.

Funeral services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Wesley Center A.M.E. Zion Church, 2701 Centre Ave., Hill District.


Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.


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