Pitt to Commemorate Black History Month

Issue Date: 
February 1, 2016

The University of Pittsburgh will celebrate the legacy of legendary Pittsburgh jazz pianist Erroll Garner at its annual K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program, hosted by Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

“The Lasting Legacy of the Great Erroll Garner: A Concert and Celebration” will be held from 6:30 to 9 p.m., Feb. 11, at Alumni Hall. 

Garner, born in Pittsburgh in 1921, became one of the most influential musicians of his genre. His best-known composition, Misty, was a ballad recorded by hundreds of vocalists and instrumentalists over the years, and it became the signature song of Johnny Mathis. The Erroll Garner Archive—a collection of correspondence, recording contracts, sheet music, awards, and memorabilia—is housed within Pitt’s University Library System. 

The Feb. 11 event, which is by invitation only, comprises:

6:30-7:30 p.m., Reception

7:30 p.m., Performance by the Afro  American Music Institute Boys Choir, under the direction of James Johnson

8 p.m., Video tribute to Erroll Garner

8:20 p.m., Live jazz performance

Selections of Garner’s music by Pitt Jazz Studies Director Geri Allen, acclaimed New York City drummer Victor Lewis, and Garner’s former bassist Ernest McCarty.

Allen has been nominated this year for both a Grammy Award for Best Historical Album and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Album for her role coproducing The Complete Concert by the Sea (Columbia/Legacy).s It is a digitally remastered version of Garner’s extremely successful Concert by the Sea (Columbia) album released in 1956.

In addition to the official K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program, a number of free public events will take place on campus throughout February. They include:

Feb. 3, 2:30-3:30 p.m., August Wilson Lecture, Hillman Library, Room G-74

Laurence Glasco, Pitt associate professor of history, will deliver a lecture titled “The Power of Place: August Wilson and Pittsburgh.” Wilson is Pittsburgh’s most celebrated playwright, known for his Pittsburgh Cycle of 10 plays, nine of them set in the Hill District. Glasco will describe how Wilson, as a young man, went out onto Centre Avenue—to places like Eddie’s Restaurant, the Crawford Grill, and Pope’s—where he observed life and met people whose language and values informed his plays, giving his work an authentic realism.

Feb. 4, 4 p.m., Erroll Garner Exhibition Opening Reception, William Pitt Union Lobby

A new exhibition, designed in part by students, will fill the large showcases of jazz memorabilia in the William Pitt Union Lobby through February. The display will feature materials from the Erroll Garner Archive, which was donated to Pitt’s University Library System in 2015. The exhibition will reveal the close and important relationship between Garner and his longtime manager, Martha Glaser, who fought for years to ensure that the pianist and his fellow musicians were treated and paid fairly at a time when Black jazz musicians were regularly exploited by the entertainment industry. Pitt jazz students, who pored over the archive last semester, helped select materials for the display. The opening reception will include remarks by curators and a musical performance. 

Feb. 5, 2:45 p.m., Feb. 11 and 15, 11:45 a.m., “Hallowed Grounds” Tours, which convene in Commons Room, Cathedral of Learning

Pitt has long been a leader in its commitment to diversity, and this free, public 90-minute tour highlights a number of African American “firsts” that occurred on campus. Among numerous others, tour stops will include: 

• Site of the former Eighth Floor Computer Lab, Cathedral of Learning

About 50 students made headlines on Jan. 16, 1969, when they took over this room, locked themselves in, and demanded their voices be heard. Because of that protest, the University, among a number of responses, officially recognized the Black Action Society as a student organization.

• K. Leroy Irvis Reading Room, Hillman Library

Dedicated in 2001, this room showcases the life and work of K. Leroy Irvis (LAW ’54), a Pitt alumnus and emeritus trustee. The room holds a portion of the K. Leroy Irvis Archives—the former state House Speaker’s personal papers, legislative records, campaign literature, and photos housed within the University Library System.

• John Woodruff Gold Medal Showcase, Hillman Library

Unveiled in 2011, this display celebrates alumnus and track star John Woodruff (A&S ’39) and the gold medal he won at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Woodruff himself insisted the medal be displayed at the library, and not the athletic facilities, because he felt it important to emphasize being a scholar-athlete. The display was erected on the 75th anniversary of Woodruff’s dramatic finish in the 800-meter race.

Feb. 17, 7 p.m., Erroll Garner Lecture, University Club, Ballroom A

Robin D. G. Kelley, the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in United States History at UCLA, will deliver a public lecture titled “The Provocative Erroll Garner.” Kelley will explore Garner’s political fights within the music industry and the important role of his manager Martha Glaser, who also was his defender and uncompromising ally in a struggle for equity and dignity. Kelley is the author of a number of books, including the prize-winning Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009).

Feb. 18, 3-5 p.m., Film Screening, Hillman Library, Dick Thornburgh Room

A showing of the popular documentary Wylie Avenue Days, which explores life in the Hill District throughout the 1930s and ’40s, including its jazz clubs, Negro League baseball teams, family businesses, and social life.

Feb. 29, 4-5 p.m., Staged Reading, Hillman Library, Dick Thornburgh Room

The University Library System and Pitt Department of Theatre Arts present a staged reading of one of August Wilson’s most famous speeches. Chris Collier, a recent graduate of Pitt’s Department of Theatre Arts, will read The Ground on Which I Stand, a 1996 call to action for Black artists to “seize power over their own cultural identity.”

Pitt began its annual Black History Month Program in 2004 with the premiere of the documentary K. Leroy Irvis: The Lion of Pennsylvania. In 2008, the University renamed the event the K. Leroy Irvis Black History Month Program to honor the memory of the legendary Pennsylvania legislative leader and Pitt alumnus and trustee. Irvis, who in 1977 became the first African American Speaker of the House of Representatives in Pennsylvania and the first Black Speaker of any state House since reconstruction, sponsored in 1966 the bill that made Pitt a state-related institution of higher education. 

About Black History Month

Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950)—who earned a PhD from Harvard University and was a celebrated African American author, educator, and historian—initiated what he called “Negro History Week” in 1926. The aim of the annual February observance, which in 1976 became Black History Month, is to honor African Americans who have struggled and achieved in their efforts to advance the mission of social equity.