Sportscaster Bill Hillgrove does play-by-play for online jazz radio show
Lifelong fan Bill Hillgrove hosts "Weekend Jazz With Bill Hillgrove" Saturdays for the online Pittsburgh Jazz Channel
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Bill Hillgrove was about to turn 12 or 13 when his mother took him to the former Sears in East Liberty to buy him a birthday present: a set of Glenn Miller records. The music on those 45 rpm discs, "Little Brown Jug," "String of Pearls," "St. Louis Blues March" and "American Patrol," changed his life.
"It gave me a great appreciation for the big bands," he says today.
Among Pittsburgh's most celebrated sportscasters, Mr. Hillgrove, 71, serves as the voice of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pitt Panthers football and basketball. Following his lengthy tenure as WTAE sports director, he remains its Steeler Insider. His distinguished career earned him the National Football Foundation's 2007 Chris Schenkel Award.
His official bios note his love of jazz and big bands in passing, yet few people realize the depth of those musical passions, or that he started as a local disc jockey. In July, he returned to those roots, hosting "Weekend Jazz With Bill Hillgrove" Saturdays for the online Pittsburgh Jazz Channel. He's part of a team that includes longtime friend and local personality Tony Mowod, heard on public radio stations around the country.
"Bill sounds wonderful," says longtime friend Joe Negri, a jazz legend himself. "I think it's a real boon for jazz. We need all the help we can get, and someone like Bill can only be a plus."
William Thomas Hillgrove, born in Lawrenceville and raised in Garfield, grew up with music. With his parents, electrician William Hillgrove and wife Virginia, he enjoyed WCAE's pop disc jockey Davey Tyson, who played "the American Songbook," he says, "hits of the '40s and early '50s." He spent many Sundays by his grandfather's radio, absorbing music, comedy or drama. His radio debut came at 13, portraying a bratty kid on a radio drama on the former WDUQ.
"I never played an instrument," he says of those early years. "I took guitar lessons, but the call of the ballfield was louder than the call to play music. And to this day, I regret it."
A student at Central Catholic when rock 'n' roll jolted America, he stood by his preferences, occasionally arguing music with his younger brother, a rock fan.
"I was kind of looked at askance by some people when they found out that I liked big bands," he acknowledges. "Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, I appreciated that stuff, but it wasn't a love for me. It was a means to an end. I would go to a dance and dance with the lady who's become my wife, and I enjoyed it. But it didn't float my boat like jazz."
The first to float that boat were the Four Freshmen and Dave Brubeck. Impressed by a friend's Freshmen album, he said their 1957 concert at Carnegie Music Hall left him awed by their ability to "play the instruments, be self-contained and do all that intricate vocal harmony." The Brubeck Quartet played there soon afterward.
"When I sat down in Carnegie Hall, with acoustics they say are perfect, and I heard that tone of [alto saxophonist] Paul Desmond's, I was again blown away. And so in high school, I really developed that love for jazz."
Entering Duquesne University in 1958 as a radio-TV journalism major, he worked at the school's station, WDUQ, as a disc jockey, hosted its Sunday opera show and for two years did play-by-play for Dukes basketball. To broaden his resume, he worked part time during his sophomore year at WKJF-FM, now KDKA-FM (The Fan). The station's sedate format emphasized lush orchestral pop, known then as "elevator music."
Jazz in Pittsburgh was highly visible back then. Mr. Hillgrove recalls going to legendary Hill District clubs such as the Hurricane and Crawford Grill and fondly remembers the Sunday morning jazz show presented by KDKA-TV and radio personality Sterling Yates. "I remember calling and asking for Maynard Ferguson," he remembers. "And he said, 'Damn, you must know your jazz! I got one right here!' And he played it."
The Sigma Delta Chi journalism fraternity's 1961 convention took him to Manhattan, where he saw Gene Krupa's Orchestra at the Metropole Cafe and visited the famed jazz club Birdland. He still frequents jazz clubs on New York visits. The Maynard Ferguson and Billy May orchestras, he recalls, played at Duquesne proms. Mr. Hillgrove's 1962 senior prom featured a band led by Canonsburg-born Bobby Vinton, a Duquesne grad himself, about to break nationally with "Roses Are Red."
After graduation, he joined WKJF full time. When WQED created "Jazz Beat" in 1965 to showcase local talent, Mr. Hillgrove, a longtime volunteer, readily agreed to host, recalling, "I knew Frank Cunimondo, Joe Negri, Danny Conn and the Silhouettes. I jumped at it, and I really enjoyed it."
His 1968 move to the announcer's booth at WTAE-TV bored him until a few months later, when management asked if he'd switch with Channel 4 personality Del Taylor at WTAE radio, who was eager to return to TV. Despite taking a pay cut, Mr. Hillgrove jumped at the chance. His evening show blended middle-of-the-road music and sports scores. "I was thinking I wanted to go into sports; it was the best of both worlds," he notes.
Music remained a constant even as his star rose in sports.
Mr. Hillgrove married Rosette Sapienza in 1965. A respected voice teacher who majored in piano at Duquesne, she occasionally accompanied him to concerts. He remembered her reaction to piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson performing with the Count Basie Orchestra. "She said, 'That's the best pianist I've ever heard -- not concert, not classical, not any idiom -- he's simply the best pianist I ever heard!' And that was remarkable."
A Duquesne alumnus, he was troubled by the university's controversial sale of WDUQ, which left its jazz format in the balance. His March 29, 2011, letter to the Post-Gazette noted WDUQ's role in preserving Pittsburgh's storied jazz heritage, asking, "Why fix what isn't broken?"
After the new owners, Essential Public Radio, shifted most jazz to an HD channel, former WDUQ engineering director Chuck Leavens launched the Pittsburgh Jazz Channel in August 2011; he approached Mr. Hillgrove this past spring.
"I'd seen Bill around the jazz clubs from time to time, and it seemed he had a really keen interest," Mr. Leavens explains. "And it turns out his interest is very deep, very broad and very enthusiastic for this music and seeing the music is carried on for further generations."
Between tunes, Mr. Hillgrove blends his own expertise with added research to offer incisive comments about various acts, down to where they're next appearing. He marvels at Pittsburgh's long line of jazz greats: Earl Hines, Maxine Sullivan, George Benson and Stanley Turrentine among them.
Does he see that tradition continuing?
"Yes, I do," he says emphatically. "When I see players like Sean Jones and Tony Campbell, Cecil Brooks III and Jeff 'Tain' Watts, we still have a chance to keep it going.
"What we have seen, unfortunately, hasn't been a positive economic factor for clubs. We lost the Balcony [in Shadyside] and for a while lost James Street [the North Side spot that has since reopened]. ... I still think there's a future, and I think we can help it if we can get on the air with jazz ...."
Given a football-basketball schedule involving three teams in overlapping time frames, Mr. Hillgrove, who occasionally emcees local jazz concerts and has a CD collection he calls "off the charts," relishes the opportunity to again bring his musical passions to a wider audience.
"I enjoy it so much. My wife has noticed how much I enjoy it, and it's been great. I knew the true test would be in the fall, especially when basketball starts, as far as being able to deal with the time that it needs, but I'll manage somehow."
First Published November 7, 2012 12:00 am