Obituary: James 'Buster' Alston / Saxophonist made indelible mark on local jazz scene

Nov. 28, 1956 - March 24, 2014

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Milton R. Alston Sr. used some of his hard-earned mill overtime to buy his son a saxophone and indulged the young man's extended practice sessions in the lone bathroom of the family's North Braddock home.

James "Buster" Alston made the most of the opportunity, nurturing a sound that would find a warm welcome in clubs, churches, theaters and concert halls and influence Pittsburgh's music scene for decades.

Mr. Alston of Regent Square, who also taught music at universities and the Pittsburgh Public Schools, died Monday at UPMC Presbyterian of complications of a stroke he suffered about a week and a half earlier. He was 57.

He last performed March 9 at Greater Emmanuel Apostolic Faith Church in Braddock, playing "Zion Is Calling Me" in the morning and "I'm Available" in the afternoon.

His mother, Sara Alston, said she was preparing to count the money at the morning service but stopped to hear him play.

Like Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, Mr. Alston was the "big man playing the saxophone," recalled Ohio Township resident Stephen Fisher, who during the 1980s played with him in a wine-loving band called the Grapetones.

"Buster could just come and listen to a few seconds of the song, and then he could just play along. He was that good," Mr. Fisher, who was the band's bass player, said.

Geri Allen, director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh, said Mr. Alston was known as a "beacon of light in the jazz community."

Mr. Alston was born Nov. 28, 1956. He was the youngest of six children, yet the biggest at birth -- 7 pounds -- so his father called him Buster.

The nickname may have described his powerful frame and the heft of his music, but it did not fit the tenor of the man, whom friends described as sweet and so laid back that he sometimes arrived late for performances.

A General Braddock High School graduate, Mr. Alston had the support of a district music teacher who helped him land a summer internship at Walt Disney World, his mother said. Later, he performed with Cedar Point's Keystone Kops.

Mr. Alston received a bachelor's degree in music from Carnegie Mellon University in 1978, a master's in music education from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., in 1983 and a doctorate in ethnomusicology from Pitt in 1996.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools hired him as a substitute teacher in January 1985 and appointed him to a permanent position that August. He was promoted to music specialist in August 2004 and to curriculum supervisor in July 2006. He retired in 2009.

"He retired too soon," school board member Sylvia Wilson, a former Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers official, said in remembering Mr. Alston at a meeting Wednesday.

Ms. Allen said Mr. Alston was a longtime adjunct saxophone instructor at Pitt, and family members said he also taught at CMU, Community College of Allegheny County, Penn State University and Braddock Carnegie Library.

In 2006, he and his wife, Helena Shorter-Alston, founded the Academy for Artistic Excellence to promote art and culture among young people. Ms. Shorter-Alston said her husband worked diligently to keep music alive in the public schools, believing that excellence in music spurred accomplishment in other disciplines.

After the Grapetones, Mr. Alston played with Mon Gumbo, a group that specialized in the exotic New Orleans sound.

"We played consistently around Pittsburgh and, on occasion, we would play festivals in other parts of the state," drummer Mike Kolesar said. Mr. Alston "brought his jazz background to the mix and did a lot of soloing and played flute as well as saxophone."

Mr. Alston also had his own jazz quartet and was active in Pittsburgh black theater.

Besides his wife, he is survived by daughters Bianca A. Alston and Briana S. Alston; a brother, Milton R. Alston Jr. of Braddock; and sisters Mildred Jones of the North Side, Emily Alston of Plum and Anita Worthey and Darlene Robinson, both of Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Services will be at 11 a.m. today at Greater Emmanuel Church.

Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548.


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