In the late summer of 1931, two men exited a fancy black car and approached Mike Negri's modest home on Kuhn Street in Mount Washington. Inside, 5-year-old Joe strummed his ukulele as 3-year-old brother Bobby pounded the piano. After listening briefly, the men knocked at the door. Mike and wife Rose, her apron stained from canning tomatoes, let them in.
Pointing at the boys, they exclaimed, "That's the act we want!" The pair introduced themselves as Gene and Fred Kelly, local dancers and dance studio owners. They'd heard about young Joe Negri, who studied tap dance with another teacher. After the visit, his father Mike bought his eldest son a guitar, teaching him enough chords to sing and play at the Kellys' studios.
Gene Kelly became an internationally famous dancer and actor by leaving Pittsburgh. Mr. Negri found fame, as one of the city's many jazz giants and as Handyman Negri on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," by staying put.
Long revered for his decades of contributions to Pittsburgh music and culture, Mr. Negri, 85, of Scott, on Saturday is being honored with an all-star gala jazz concert at the Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall in Carnegie.
Music has been part of Mr. Negri's life from the very beginning, something he explained in a series of interviews beginning in 2009.
"My dad was an amateur musician," Mr. Negri explains. "He played the banjo, a little bit of fiddle, played some Dixieland." Mike Negri, a native of Calabria in Southern Italy, arrived in America at 16, became a bricklayer and married Rose Viggiano.
Born in 1926, Joseph Harold Negri first heard Italian music, but American pop and jazz were also part of his family's musical DNA. His parents taught him one new pop song a week. By age 4, he was singing on KQV's "Uncle Henry's Radio Rascals," a kids' amateur program. Mike Negri later organized both sons and their cousin, Mutsy Amato, into the Rhythm Boys, who played at theaters and Italian lodges.
Studying with Vic Lawrence at the old Volkwein Music store, Downtown, Mr. Negri evolved into a guitar prodigy, further inspired by cutting-edge jazz guitar records by Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. At 16, he joined the Pittsburgh Musicians' Union and played his first professional job with an orchestra at the University Club that same night.
Frank Andrini, a Pittsburgh guitarist who'd taken Mr. Negri under his wing, alerted nationally renowned orchestra leader Shep Fields to the gifted teenager. Mr. Fields, who'd replaced his bland "Rippling Rhythm" band with a more adventurous unit, hired him during a Pittsburgh stop in March 1943.
At 16, Mr. Negri promptly quit school and hit the road as a featured soloist.
Reviewing the orchestra's March 1944 Stanley Theatre concert, Post-Gazette critic Harold V. Cohen declared, "Young Joe Negri, a Pittsburgh lad, easily demonstrates why he is right up there with the wizards of the electric guitar." The adventure continued until his draft notice arrived in August. The Army shipped him to Europe in early 1945, then reassigned him to a dance band at Fort Lee, Va., and discharged him late that year.
Postwar Pittsburgh's vibrant entertainment scene included top nightclubs, private clubs, parties, banquets and dances. Mr. Negri not only freelanced, in 1946 he formed the first Joe Negri Trio with brother Bobby, now 18, playing piano. Unlike many jazz musicians, Mr. Negri also considered himself an entertainer. "I was dancin' on both sides, commercial and jazz, but I've always done that," he explains.
In June 1946, three years before Pittsburgh had a commercial TV station, Mr. Negri made his video debut on a closed-circuit hookup at Kaufmann's department store, Downtown. "I felt like Alexander Graham Bell," he laughs. Appearing on KDKA Radio's live pop music program "Singing Strings," he met a fellow guest: jazz pianist Johnny Costa, who became a lifelong friend and collaborator.
Mr. Negri was unsure about his future as the '40s ended, torn between entering the priesthood or working in Manhattan's busy recording studios. Mr. Costa suggested his friend join him at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) to study composition with eminent composer-pianist Nikolai Lopatnikoff. Having earned his high school credits, Mr. Negri began his studies, playing nights and weekends. During the summer he played at Conneaut Lake in Crawford County, where he met Pittsburgher Joni Serafini; they married in 1954.
The Negri Trio hit local TV in 1952 as regulars on "Buzz 'N Bill," a daily WDTV variety program starring song and dance men Buzz Aston and Bill Hinds. Mr. Negri also accompanied Iron City Beer commercials during Pirate games. "I would play live while they poured the beer," he remembers.
When star vocalists played Pittsburgh's top nightclub, Lenny Litman's Copa, Mr. Negri often accompanied them. Andy Williams nearly hired him as his regular guitarist; Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett were equally admiring. For a time, he joined the Three Suns, a nationally famous instrumental trio.
His dream of a Manhattan studio career lingered, and in 1958 the Negris, parents of infant daughters Lisa and Laurie (daughter Gia came along in 1966), made an exploratory trip to Manhattan. Realizing studio work left little family time, they returned with no regrets.
Pittsburgh still offered ample opportunities: TV work at KDKA, club and party jobs and a new sideline: writing commercial jingles with ex-"Buzz 'N Bill" writer Sy Bloom. Ketchum, MacLeod & Grove, Pittsburgh Brewing's ad agency, enlisted the pair to write the now-famous 1960 Pirates World Series fight song "Beat 'Em Bucs!"
Playing at parties, Mr. Negri met WTAE's general manager Franklin Snyder, who hired him in 1961 for the "Hank Stohl Show," a new morning program for adults starring the veteran kids' show host. The zany ensemble included Dave Crantz and announcer-newscaster Nick Perry. "We made it our goal to crack Nick up," Mr. Negri remembers. When they accidentally broke him up as he read a serious news item, "the main office called him in ... We had to cool it."
Elevated to Channel 4 music director, Mr. Negri played on iconic WTAE kids' programs such as "Ricki and Copper" and Paul Shannon's "Adventure Time." He remembers the time Mr. Shannon had a run-in just before show time with the day's guest: a trained tiger. "I got the rush call of my life [saying] 'get yourself in there, 'cause Paul had to go to the hospital!' "
Summer dinner theater became Mr. Negri's next creative outlet. In 1963 he teamed with the late Bob McCully to write satirical musical revues, many staged at Beck's Charter Oaks in Scott. The casts featured Don Brockett, Barbara Russell and Bob Trow and other top local actors. Their 1967 presentation, "Is There Anyone We Haven't Offended?" featured Carnegie Tech drama student Al Einstein, known today as Albert Brooks.
Fred Rogers is forever linked to WQED, but Mr. Negri first worked with him in 1965 when he hosted a 15-minute WTAE children's program sponsored by Horne's department store. The show, he remembers, lasted about six months. "Fred and commercial television weren't meant to be," he says with amusement. "He couldn't stand doing commercials. He wouldn't [pitch] GI Joe ... He was always fighting with the sales department!"
Two years later, he offered Mr. Negri the Handyman role on the new "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," with Mr. Costa as music director and Mr. Brockett and Mr. Trow as part of the cast. "I was never an actor," Mr. Negri insists. "I was always just myself." His profile rose at Channel 4 in the late '60s as he created and hosted documentaries on both the guitar and the blues.
"Joe Negri's High School Talent Scene" premiered in 1971. "It was very popular," he says, "because it had a niche. Those kids and schools looked forward to that." As for the high-volume rock bands that sometimes appeared, "The engineers used to hate it!" he recalls with amusement. Later, he hosted a rebooted "Adventure Time."
When WTAE no longer needed live music in the '80s, he doubled down on jazz gigs and teaching. He taught guitar at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon and in 1973 helped Duquesne University launch its guitar program. A request to compose music for a Catholic educational conference laid the cornerstone for his acclaimed "Mass of Hope."
Despite the deaths of Mr. Costa, Mr. Brockett and Mr. Trow, "Mister Rogers" persevered. But the losses affected the host, who decided to end production in 2000. Mr. Negri sadly remembers the call. "It was hard for Fred. He called each and every one of us and he said, 'Before anybody else goes, I'm gonna call it quits.' Then he was the next to go."
Eight decades after meeting Gene Kelly, Joe Negri still trusts his instincts for blending jazz with entertainment, whether it's a kids' show, a hotel job or the 2011 Newport Jazz Festival, where he appeared with Michael Feinstein. He might even slip an Italian medley into a jazz concert.
"I learned at a very early age to be aware of my audience," he explains. "I'm always conscious of who and what I'm playing for."
The Joe Negri Quartet, with Maureen Budway and guests Jay and Marty Ashby, will perform today as part of Jazz Day in the Park, at Schenley Plaza, Oakland. Performances, organized by the Pittsburgh Jazz Society, start at noon.
Rich Kienzle is a music historian, critic and author who writes the "Get Rhythm" blog for post-gazette.com and contributes to the "Believe Your Ears" music podcast.