Jazz is a purely American art form. No one is quite sure where it first began, but its roots lie in the African American experience of the South at the beginning of the 20th century. Perhaps the reason so many are devotees of this music form is that it is so open to interpretation, leaving room for various artists to put their unique stamp on it. Although not situated in the South, Pittsburgh took to jazz and has since been a hot spot on the scene.
For many, the late Walt Harper was the face of jazz in Pittsburgh. Born in the Schenley Heights section of the city, Harper was a gifted jazz pianist who helped introduce the art form to many in the city. After graduating from Schenley High School in 1947, Harper studied at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute and the University of Pittsburgh.
From 1949 to 1954, he and his band toured, earning him an international reputation. With no great love for the road, he decided to station himself in Pittsburgh, and in 1958, he began playing the Crawford Grill in the Hill District. In 1969, he opened Walt Harper's Attic in Market Square. It attracted stellar jazz performers and crowds of jazz aficionados including local sports celebrities like Terry Bradshaw and L.C. Greenwood. When Walt Harper's Attic closed in the mid-70s, Dan Rooney, who was the owner and president of the Steelers, hired Harper to play at all Steelers home games. He did so until 2002.
In 1983, Walt opened Harper's in One Oxford Centre. The jazz-themed club remained open until 1988 and brought to town talent like Nancy Wilson and Dave Brubeck. Harper died in 2006 after bringing nearly six decades of great jazz to Pittsburgh.