Black History Month and the PSO

by Jeremy Black

The Black Lives Matter protests of this summer inspired me to explore the history and relationship of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Pittsburgh’s Black community.  The results were fruitful and, in my naiveté, surprisingly rich, and I’d like to share three of those findings with you today.

Most familiar to me was the career of Patricia Prattis Jennings, principal keyboardist of the PSO from 1966-2006.  The first Black female musician awarded a full-time contract with a major American orchestra, her talent was recognized early by then-PSO Music Director William Steinberg and she appeared as soloist with the orchestra several times in her youth.  Her artistry earned international accolades for both performances and recordings. 

Her father was the editor of the the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential Black newspaper, which led to a lifetime passion for writing.  In her book of essays, “In One Era and Out the Other,” she recalled that “every African-American out-of-towner who came to visit my father on business had to stay in my parents’ home because “colored people” weren’t welcome in downtown hotels.”

How astounding – she has stayed in premiere hotels around the world while on tour with the the Pittsburgh Symphony, but in her youth her family would not have been allowed into a hotel in downtown Pittsburgh!  

PSO Concertmaster Fritz Siegal, Principalj Keyboardist Patricia Jennings, Assistant Conductor (and former PSO pianist) Henry Mazer, and Personnel Manager Sidney Cohen, circa 1968
(photo from PSO archives)

In case you think that was an aberration, famed Black travelers, including Roberto Clemente and Lena Horne, could also be found boarding at the National Negro Opera House in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh because they were not allowed in the hotels downtown.   The National Negro Opera Company (NNOC), led by Mary Cardwell Dawson and operating out of the house from 1941-1962, became an international destination for talented Black musicians who were shunned from the Metropolitan Opera in New York and other establishment institutions.  Its popularity grew quickly, and at its height the NNOC produced operas in Washington DC, New York City (at the Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall), and Chicago, working with musicians of all races from all the major orchestras in each city, including musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony.  In Pittsburgh, the NNOC performed at Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood, at that time also home to the PSO.   In 2016, both the NNOC and Patricia Prattis Jennings were featured in a wonderful WQED documentary.

Just down the street in Oakland was the renowned Pittsburgh Musical Institute, a music school that at one time enrolled over 2000 students before it merged with the University of Pittsburgh in 1963. The PMI was one of the few elite music schools that would admit Black musicians, and counts Billy Strayhorn, Vivian Reed and Ahmad Jamal among its graduates.  And, of course, many instructors were Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians.

I look around our stage, staff and audience and often wonder why we see such little diversity in any of those places.  Why, it seems self-evident that classical music can speak to everyone, uplifting spirits and enriching our humanity!  But reflecting on our history, or more recent heart-wrenching accounts like that of conductor Brandon Keith Brown who had a white woman spit “Go sit somewhere else!” at him while attending a concert in Chicago, makes me wonder how many Black people are turned off and decide not to pursue their dreams of classical music, or even attend a concert.  We, the Pittsburgh Symphony, our community, and our nation, are lesser for it. 

Perhaps a lesson from events like Black History Month is that we are living and creating history every day.  We have a responsibility to make good choices moment to moment — to be informed or stubbornly ignorant, to create opportunity and equity or to shrink from the challenge — that will grow directly into the type of society we will leave the next generation.  Let’s treat that responsibility wisely.