The Search for the Pittsburgh Sound

Can a city have a sound?

By David Bernabo

If you say Motown, you think Detroit. If you say Grunge, you think Seattle. Country, Nashville. Post-rock, Chicago. Turning it around — New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz (and later on, Bounce). San Francisco can take credit for a good bit of psychedelia. New York can take punk (as long as they share it a bit).

If we try to identify the sound of a city, in musical genre, what is the Pittsburgh sound? Can a style of music represent a city over 100 years? 10 years? 1 year?

Pittsburgh can lay claim to a few musical origins. Concurrent with the 34th presidential election, KDKA broadcasted the first licensed commercial radio signal on November 2, 1920. This led to KDKA broadcasting the first radio concert band, the first African American radio appearance — Lois Deppe and Earl Hines — and the first music ensemble created for radio.

Jump back 70 years, and you’ll find Pittsburgher Stephen Foster writing his popular minstrel songs “Camptown Races,” “Oh Susanna,” and “Swanee River,” thus, earning his title of “father of pop music.” Despite the complicated layers of racism and progressivism peppered in Foster’s work, many of his songs now exist as official state songs — not exactly a “Pittsburgh Sound.” See Kentucky’s state song “My Old Kentucky Home” or Florida’s “Old Folks at Home” (aka “Swanee River”).

Ahmad Jamal. Wiki Commons.

Back to the 20th Century — redlining and Jim Crow laws forced Hill District residents to build their own thriving culture, resulting in a vibrant jazz and big band scene lasting from the 1920s to the 1960s before urban renewal decimated the neighborhood and the culture. Labeled the “Crossroads to the World” by Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay, Hill District clubs were essential stops for touring musicians. Locals Earl Hines, Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal, and Billy Eckstine frequently played clubs like the Crawford Grill, the upscale Loendi Club, and Harlem Casino, as did heavyweights Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lena Horne, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.

“There used to be a time where you wouldn’t ask who is playing where, you would go to the Crawford Grill,” remembers bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan. “Post 755, the Aurora Club, the Hurricane. I’m going to Carl’s Court and Cave, because you knew that no matter where you’d go, you’d know there is some good music being played.” The legacy of Pittsburgh’s jazz past is embedded in many of the city’s narratives and certainly in the traditionalist approach to Pittsburgh’s current jazz output, but Pittsburgh can’t exactly lay claim to a subgenre of jazz. Cool Jazz wasn’t invented here. Nor was hard bop, modal, soul jazz, or free jazz.

Lately, isolated national successes have not been indicative of a city-wide sound. These national blips haven’t led to an unearthing of Pittsburgh’s rich musical landscapes, but the national attention has created a sense of hope for national exposure for musicians grinding it out in the studio and on the bar stage or gallery floor. The success of rappers Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller swept those talents out of the city. Christina Aguilera’s Top 40 dominance feels too big for this conversation, but is worth noting. Girl Talk’s wild success threw some benefits to rap-rock duo Grand Buffet, while also validating the dedication of the few locals who were bopping their heads to Girl Talk sets in the now-closed, swamp-like Garfield Artworks. Pittsburgh’s rock representation experienced some success with Modey Lemon’s Mute Records contract in the mid aughts, The Gotobed’s recent signing to Sub Pop, and of course, Don Caballero’s glorious run with Touch and Go that helped to define the term “math rock.”

The Gotobeds. Photo courtesy of Sub Pop Records.

With the proliferation of access to musics from across the globe, it is becoming rarer that genres originate in one place. Maybe subgenres or sub-subgenres still do, but Pittsburgh’s lack of a dominant type of music and lack of substantial national attention do not help build a case for a “Pittsburgh sound.” Is the search of a citywide sound a fool’s errand?

“I think there have been times where I’ve thought there was some kind of definitive Pittsburgh sound,” reminisces Side Eye’s Carrie Battle, “but I see now that came from being so involved in one particular music scene here that I developed a bit of a tunnel vision. I’m actually really excited by the diversity of the music I’ve seen coming out of Pittsburgh. I just had to broaden my horizons a bit to get that exposure.”

Modey Lemon.

For Modey Lemon’s Phillip Boyd, there was never a unified sound, but there were pockets of unified communities. “When Modey Lemon was getting going, we didn’t really know where we fit in as far as a sound or scene went, but we definitely found multiple homes within the punk rock community. On the surface, those homes seemed to exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, in the way that the Rickety [Records] crew and Gooski’s or the 31st Street Pub definitely had a different culture than Mr. Roboto Project.”

For Boyd, “these homes seemed to melt into more of a wider community and not the niches that I initially perceived them to be. That community was found in an attitude or idea and less in a sound, in my opinion. If there had been a definitive sound, I don’t think I’d be remembering all the various types of bands we played with across all types of venues.”

“I feel like the times where a city could be defined by a specific sound are over,” asserts Battle. “We have such unlimited access to music now, it’s natural that there’s a larger variety of genres people are getting into, and that makes for much more interesting and diverse local scenes.”

A citywide sound may be hard to come, but can sound be tied to time and place or neighborhood? Can a group of people who came up together export a unified sound or a tendency in their playing and writing? Let’s jump back to the Hill District for a minute.

Christopher Dean Sullivan.

“Pittsburgh has its own sound. You see some of the greatest folks that have left Pittsburgh — Art Blakey, Billy Eckstine, Earl Garner, Phyllis Hineman, Ray Brown. The list can go on and on,” says Sullivan. “What we take from here is what we’ve learned from here.”

Part of the national recognition of Pittsburgh as a jazz hub in these years — 40s to 60s — was due to infrastructure. The Hill District and its music clubs were prime stops for touring musicians, and acted as launching pads for local musicians to become known by and eventually join tours with national artists.

When you look at recent examples of cities identified with sound — Chicago and post-rock, Seattle and grunge — this connection of sound to place is in-part due to public relations. There are conscious and subconscious forces reinforcing the “sound of a city.” In the early 90s, record labels could sell more records if they stamped new releases with the term “grunge.” Lazy music journalism often resorts to simplified and reductive terms for music, propagating the use of the new genres and, consequently, the identification of place with sound. A feedback loop develops where subgenres are canonized and accepted as valid categories and tags for labeling music on iTunes and Bandcamp. At this point, terms like grunge and post-rock can be disassociated with their place of origin, but often the solidifying of subgenres as valid earmarks in history link sound with place.

With Pittsburgh’s current severe lack of local infrastructure — record labels, venues and radio stations with a commitment to promoting local music, publicity firms, booking agents, managers — the chance for Pittsburgh to innovate a new sound and for that sound to be sufficiently supported and promoted is slight. But is this a bad thing?

The city sound can be reductive. It can simplify the rich diversity of a city’s musical landscape. New musical genres and subgenres are continually created, fused, and expanded. The widespread nature of Pittsburgh’s musical landscape from hip hop to contemporary composition to punk to Eastern European folk music, in a sense, nullifies this quest for a singular sound. And I think that’s ok.


In the next few months, Recital will publish a series of articles about a few unlikely influences to a city’s sound. Stay tuned!