By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Half a century ago, Dr. Nathan Davis held the first Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert.
Groundbreaking jazz musicians like Pittsburgh native Art Blakey came to the University of Pittsburgh for free seminars that gave aspiring musicians and diehard jazz fans a chance to interact with the players. The end of the week always wrapped up with a concert at Carnegie Music in which Davis and the guest players recalled the freewheeling “blowing sessions” of jazz’s heyday.
The tradition has continued every year since 1970, with the late pianist Geri Allen taking the reins when Davis retired in 2013. Allen passed away four years later after a battle with cancer (Davis passed away in 2018) and now the seminar and concert continues under the direction of Nicole Mitchell, the flutist and composer who became the Chair of Jazz Studies at Pitt in 2019.
Months ahead of the 2019 seminar, Mitchell told this writer that she planned to “shake things up a bit” with her first Seminar concert. For Pittsburgh jazz fans who expected the straightahead vibe of bygone years, Mitchell’s words might have seemed like an understatement. The guests ranged from adventurous saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell (of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) to post-modern pianist Jason Moran, a balance of avant-garde and straightforward players. However the set had rocky moments, with experimental musician and spoken word artist Moor Mother overtaking much of the music early in the evening. Though the ensemble rallied to a strong end, streams of audience members walked out before the program finished. But although the evening wasn’t entirely successful, Mitchell deserves credit for reminders that jazz is a live artform that might ruffle some feathers as it moves forward.
The Seminar and Concert marks its golden anniversary this week and like many things during the pandemic, its programs are taking place online. Titled “Celebrating Dr. Nathan Davis and Geri Allen,” it features a series of panel discussions and performances that reflect on the work Mitchell’s predecessors created both in the university context and as recording artists.
While it features many musicians affiliated with Pitt’s Jazz Studies program, the week also includes nationally known activists and artists participating in the discussion. Of note: On Wednesday, November 5, Mitchell’s Jazz Talk panel focuses on Racial Equity in Jazz and Jazz Education, with Gail Austin (Kente Arts Alliance), Avana Contreras (WBEZ-FM, Chicago) and writer/arts consultant Willard Jenkins. Feed the Fire: A Symposium In Honor of Geri Allen streams from Columbia University on Thursday, November 5 with keynote presentations from activist Angela Davis and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Mitchell and Carrington will join pianist Vijay Iyer and Pittsburgh bassist Dwayne Dolphin on Friday, November 6 for a discussion of Allen’s work. In lieu of the Carnegie Music Hall concert, a Pitt Jazz Faculty Showcase — pre-recorded at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild — will be streamed Saturday evening. A complete schedule of dates and times can be found at www.jazz.pitt.edu/jazz-sem.
Nicole Mitchell’s own compositions (and past presidency with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) reveal the cutting edge side of jazz, but this year’s program shows her reverence for the music’s history. “It’s important for us to remember from where we came so we can plan well where we will go for the next fifty years in jazz,” she says.