Joe Negri still finds magic in music

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Joe Negri is luckier than many who have grown up in the spotlight.

It still shines on him, even if it has dimmed somewhat -- not for a lack of spark in the talented jazz musician but because of changing times.

  
Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Joe Negri

There are fewer jazz clubs in which he can show the magic of his guitar. But the magic is still there, and he's playing better than ever.

"He's far too humble," says Pittsburgh jazz singer Sandy Staley. "He's a true wizard, one-of-a-kind musician. Joe is one of those phenomenons who have more to say musically today than he had 20 years ago.

"The older musicians are the ones young kids learn from. Joe listens intently, and that's why he plays so well."

As many of us move on beyond 70, which Negri has with a brisk although more measured step, we tend to stop in our tracks at times and "remember when" and wonder "what if."

The jazz guitarist did just that recently as he sat at my kitchen table.

To most people on the music scene, Negri, 76, is immediately recognizable. He has played at Heinz Hall with the Pittsburgh Symphony, with world-recognized talents like Michael Feinstein, Itzhak Perlman, Tony Bennett and Yo-Yo Ma. He's also played in the background for dozens of fashion shows, as WTAE musical director, at numerous benefits, and with his trio at the William Penn Jazz Society nights, or at Shadyside's Walnut Grille. He also played recently at Lincoln Center with the Duquesne Jazz Ensemble in a tribute to Pittsburgh jazz musicians.

Yes, he is known worldwide as Handyman on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," for which awards line the walls at his home in Scott.

How fortunate we have been to have him stay in "the Burgh" while having a reputation as one of the best guitar players in the country.

We have benefitted from his choosing to marry and raise his children here while pursuing his other passions: playing guitar, teaching (at Pitt, CMU and Duquesne) and composing. Did I mention recording four CDs?

I love that this soft-spoken man, also a grandfather, is still on the local music scene.

Passionate about his work, but not a personality to push, he is less than forceful in the "selling" of his work.

He credits his wife, Joni, with moving him along. "She keeps me going," he says shyly. "Truthfully, family is what matters most to me.

"I'm aware of age, the passing of time," he says. "You have to keep up and stay current or you'll fall by the wayside. I try to do that. In this business, age isn't always a positive thing, but I know myself pretty well after all these years, and I know I remain optimistic and energetic."

He's currently composing music set to the poetry of black poets, known as the Black Renaissance Poets. It will be a new jazz work similar to his "Mass of Hope: A Mass in the Jazz Idiom." It's due out this spring. And he continues to teach.

"Actually, maturity helps me be better, I think. Experience makes me better. I like playing as much as ever -- maybe even more.

"What I like about where I am now," he says thoughtfully, "is that I am more or less in the driver's seat. I can accept or turn down jobs. You know, my job as a musician wasn't always for kicks. I did weddings and stuff. I had a family. It was my job, and I was earning a living."

Now he can be more selective.

"I'd like to record more. I'd like to do something by myself that is just Joe, the guitar player."

Sounds like a CD title to me: "Just Joe ... the guitar player."


Barbara Cloud's column appears in the Post-Gazette Sunday Magazine on the first Sunday of every month and has an exclusive home on the PG's Web site all other Sundays. To access her columns on the Senior Class Web page, visit www.post-gazette.com/lifestyle/senior . She can be reached at bcloud@post-gazette.com .


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