Joe Negri performs at the memorial service honoring the 149th Anniversary of Stephen Foster 's death in the Temple of Memories at the Allegheny Cemetery at Penn Avenue.
By Rich Kienzle
"Thank goodness I am feeling well," says Joe Negri.
The veteran jazz guitarist and entertainer, known to generations as "Handyman Negri" of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," is resuming an active performing and teaching schedule for 2014 after resolving health problems that occasionally sidelined him during the past two years.
In July, Mr. Negri, 87, of Scott, underwent surgery for diverticulitis, resolving a problem that plagued him for a year. After another minor surgical procedure in the fall, he approaches 2014 refreshed and ready to ramp up his schedule.
"The [diverticulitis] surgery was the big one and took about 12 weeks to fully recover. The other was minor in comparison. I'm back to my regular teaching schedules at Pitt and Duquesne," he declares, adding "I hope to be able to increase my performance schedule in 2014."
Last month, he played at Mayor Bill Peduto's inaugural festivities and a week later appeared as usual at the annual Stephen Foster Day. On Friday, Mr. Negri, on Duquesne University's music faculty for 40 years, hosts a master class focusing on solo jazz guitar and the work of pioneers such as Eddie Lang. Last year, the university launched a Joe Negri Guitar Scholarship program.
Asked why Foster's compositions endure, he cites "his strong melodic input. He was America's first popular songwriter, and that alone would be enough to keep him in the minds and hearts of people. He's well loved in foreign countries. There is a cute translation of 'Oh! Susanna' in Italian, and the Japanese seem to really love him. I've been a Foster fan since grade school."
"Dream Dancing," Mr. Negri's first CD in more than a decade, appeared on the Noteworthy Jazz Label in 2010. Critical praise aside, woefully inadequate distribution limited its exposure. That frustration extends to the business aspects of music in general. He recalls one of his guitar heroes, the legendary Tal Farlow, became so fed up with that side of things he resumed his former career of sign painting for a time.
"I've never thought of giving up music," Mr. Negri declares. "But the business side can be trying. I won't say that I won't be going back into the studio, but for the present I have no definite plans to record."
He's optimistic about the future of jazz in a city that spawned generations of luminaries from Earl Hines and Billy Strayhorn to Mary Lou Williams, George Benson, Sheryl Bailey and Sean Jones.
"Pittsburgh has always managed to maintain a somewhat healthy jazz scene," he insists. "I'm a very big fan and supporter of Pittsburgh jazz. We are much more than the Pirates and the Steelers. We have a great jazz history that, unfortunately, doesn't get talked about enough."
That enthusiasm extends to efforts to revive jazz radio, marginalized following the 2011 sale of WDUQ. "Thank goodness for people like Chuck Leavens and Bee Barnett, who are desperately trying to bring back jazz on the radio with their WYZR -- 88.1 project," he says. "I wish them well and hope they find the means to bring that signal into the Pittsburgh area. We desperately need it."
"I have several nice things already in the book for this year," he adds. "I hope to continue on at the Omni William Penn, where I appear one Friday a month and also at Andys Wine Bar at the Fairmont Pittsburgh, where I'll be playing at least one night a month."
He's in concert at the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School in Midland in March, and in late April he'll perform his original "Mass of Hope" with the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh.
Finding ways to market "One Guitar," his instruction book on solo jazz guitar, is another priority, he says. "I hope to get it online and promoted."
Mr. Negri's ultimate plan, however, is to just keep going. "I hope to stay healthy and be able to continue playing. My hands and mind continue to function fairly well, and I still enjoy playing."
Joe Negri performs at Andys at the Fairmont Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. He holds the master class at Duquesne University, Mary Pappert Music School, at 1:30 p.m. Friday. It is free and open to the public. For information: www.joenegri.com.
Rich Kienzle is a freelance writer who blogs at http://communityvoices.post-gazette.com.
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