Pitt Black History Month Observance Will Celebrate African American Arts

Issue Date: 
February 17, 2014

Performances in dance, jazz, and poetry will highlight a Celebration of the Arts at 7 p.m., Feb. 24, in the Seventh-Floor Auditorium of Alumni Hall, 4227 Fifth Ave., Oakland. The by-invitation-only event, which marks the University of Pittsburgh’s 2014 K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program, honors the achievements of three retired Pitt faculty—Nathan Davis, Toi Derricotte, and Vernell A. Lillie—who led efforts at Pitt to create distinctive and highly successful programs in jazz, poetry, and theatre, respectively.

The evening will feature a range of artistic performances by University professors and students, including internationally renowned jazz pianist and composer Geri Allen, who is associate professor of music and director of Pitt’s Jazz Studies Program; and Terrance Hayes, celebrated poet, Pitt professor of English, and winner of the 2010 National Book Award for poetry for Lighthead (Penguin, 2010).

Both Allen and Hayes are recent additions to the Pitt School of Arts and Sciences faculty. Allen was recruited to Pitt from the faculty of the University of Michigan and Hayes from the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University. Allen earned the master’s degree in ethnomusicology at Pitt and went on to perform and collaborate with a long list of jazz greats, including Ron Carter and the Ornette Coleman Quartet. Last year, she toured America and Europe as part of the ACS Trio, along with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and bassist Esperanza Spalding. She has released a number of recordings and her honors include Howard University’s Benny Golson Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition.

Hayes also is a Pitt alumnus, having received an MFA in writing in 1997. In addition to the National Book Award, his honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, the Pushcart Prize, and three Best American Poetry selections. His other books of poetry include Wind in a Box (Penguin, 2006) and Hip Logic (Penguin, 2002). His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, and The New Yorker and has been featured on the PBS NewsHour.

Three Pitt organizations also will perform, including the Shona Sharif African Dance and Drum Ensemble; Some of God’s Children Gospel Choir; and the Step Team of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. A reception will follow immediately after the program, in Alumni Hall’s J. W. Connolly Ballroom.

“The annual K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program has become one of the signature events of each academic year at the University of Pittsburgh,” said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg, who is hosting the evening. “This year’s event almost certainly will stand out, not only because it will focus on the arts but because we will be honoring the achievements and contributions of three legendary Pitt history-makers and will enjoy the performances of two extraordinarily accomplished new Pitt faculty members, in Geri Allen and Terrance Hayes, as well as some exceptionally talented student groups. It will be a great night to honor the past, savor the present, and look forward to the many good things that still lie ahead.”

Clyde B. Jones III, Pitt’s vice chancellor of health sciences development, will serve as the evening’s Master of Ceremonies. Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson and Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kathy W. Humphrey will help introduce the performers.

Brief biographies of the three honorees follow:

NathanNathan Davis Davis, Pitt Professor Emeritus of Music
Davis arrived at the University in 1969 as director of the Jazz Studies Program. Shortly thereafter, he founded the annual Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert—the first academic jazz seminar of its type in the country. For more than four decades, the event has hosted some of the greatest names in American jazz history, including saxophonists Grover Washington Jr. and Sonny Stitt, drummer and band leader Art Blakey, trumpet master Dizzy Gillespie, and many others.
Davis has published four books, including a scholarly text on the history of jazz. He served as faculty director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ (Washington, D.C.) career-development residency program for young artists from 2000 to 2011. In addition, Davis was a jazz master faculty member at the annual Ravinia Festival in Chicago for many summers. He also served as the musical director for the Thelonious Monk Institute in Aspen, Colo., and in 2010, was an artist in the newly formed Jazz Masters München Program, held in Munich, Germany.
Davis has written more than 200 original compositions, including film scores, four symphonies, and a jazz opera Just Above My Head, based on the book by James Baldwin. It premiered in Pittsburgh in 2004. He has also received many accolades over his career, including the BNY Mellon Jazz 2013 Living Legacy Award, which was presented to him last fall in a special ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

ToiToi Derricotte Derricotte, Pitt Professor Emerita of English
A renowned poet, Derricotte has more than 1,000 poems published in anthologies, journals, and magazines. In 2012, she was elected to the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors, the academy’s advisory board of distinguished poets.
Derricotte is the cofounder of the Cave Canem Foundation, an organization that has offered workshops and retreats for African American poets since 1996. She is the author of five books of poetry—The Undertaker’s Daughter (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), Tender (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), Captivity (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), Natural Birth (Crossing Press, 1983), The Empress of the Death House (Lotus Press, 1978)—and the memoir The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey (W.W. Norton & Co., 1997). In 1997, The Black Notebooks was included in The New York Times Book Review’s “Notable Books of the Year” listing and won the 1998 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Non-Fiction.
Among Derricotte’s honors are the 2012 PEN/ Voelcker Award for Poetry, fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Foundation, the First Dudley Randall Award for National Contributions to Literature, the Paterson Poetry Prize for Tender, the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, two Pushcart Prizes, the Distinguished Pioneering of the Arts Award from the United Black Artists, and many others. In 2009, she was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania and in 2001, a National Book Award Judge in Poetry.

VernellVernell A. Lillie A. Lillie, Associate Professor Emerita of Africana Studies
Lillie founded Kuntu Repertory Theatre at Pitt in 1974, based upon her strong belief that both students and the community could understand African American art, culture, and social concerns through active education. For decades, student and community actors showcased the works of the late Pitt professor Rob Penny, August Wilson, and other local Black playwrights. In addition to mounting three or four productions a season, Kuntu actors performed off-campus throughout the year for students and groups throughout the community, including senior citizens, prison inmates, recovering drug addicts, and pregnant teen girls. The company also offered workshops and master classes for beginning and professional actors. Noted television actress Esther Rolle, former Pittsburgh City Councilman Sala Udin, and Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company founder Mark Southers are just a few of the actors who performed on the Kuntu stage.
The company has won many important awards over the years, including several Onyx and People’s Choice Awards from the African American Council of Theatre. Kuntu also was a frequent participant in the Pittsburgh New Works Festival.
Lillie was the recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1986 and then-Governor Tom Ridge named her a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania in 1998. In 2006, she received the Pennsylvania Creative Community Award.