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August 28, 1997

Love & knowledge of the music led to international reputation as jazz write r for UPT professor

Three Dog Night and Grand Funk Railroad were the hot tickets back when Phillip Atteberry, an English instructor at Pitt's Titusville campus (UPT), was in high school in Illinois. At least they were the groups endlessly heard on the radio.

In the Atteberry house, though, the air belonged to artists like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Dizzy Gillespie. Atteberry's barber father, Doug, was a jazz and big band fan with a tremendous record collection he played day and night.

"There was music going in our house all the time," Atteberry recalls. "I wasn't conscious of listening to it as a kid, but I think you absorb what you are around and I think your tastes are determined by what you hear." What Atteberry heard led him to a love of jazz equal to that of his father; a feeling that since has seen him develop a history of jazz class at UPT, gain an international reputation as a jazz writer and create a computer data base containing almost 4,000 jazz songs.

Atteberry's data base documents a song's composer or composers, copyright date, films or shows associated with it, lyric changes and performers who have recorded it. He has been working on it for three years with no end in sight.

"I've learned a whole lot about songs and American popular music generally by doing the data base," Atteberry says. "One of my things about jazz is that it grew out of touching so many other kinds of music. Show music, for example, is a big part of the jazz repertoire. Composers like Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, even though they were show composers, so many of their songs have been taken over by jazz musicians. This data base is a way to try to document that." The English instructor is not sure what he will do with his data base, except continue to add to it and put it on UPT's computer network so students can use it. "I use a lot of source books to track down the information, but some of it isn't available anywhere that I know of," he explains.

For instance, when Atteberry interviewed Bob Haggart, co-composer of the jazz classic "South Rampart Street Parade," he learned that the song was written for a big show by Bob Crosby's Bobcats in New Orleans in the late 1930s. Haggart was playing with the Bobcats at the time. He got together with the group's drummer, Ray Badauc, to write the song because they felt the band needed something special for the show.

"South Rampart Street is one of the big thoroughfares in New Orleans," Atteberry notes, "so it has a Dixieland flavor and turned out to be a very popular song for them. It was been recorded many times over many years and is still recorded. Tidbits like that I put into the data base." Although Atteberry's love of jazz goes back to boyhood, he never did much with the music, besides listen, until he joined the Allegheny Jazz Society six years ago. The group sponsors about a dozen events a year, mostly small weekend concerts in the 85-seat Garner Theatre in Meadville.

The society and its concerts, in fact, may be one of the best kept secrets in western Pennsylvania. The Garner Theatre is one of the few places where big-name jazz performers can be seen outside of New York or some other large city. A recent weekend concert featured vocalist Weslia Whitfield, pianist Mike Greensill and bassist Michael Moore. "Two days before they came to Meadville, they had completed an engagement at the Plush Room in San Francisco," Atteberry points out. "The day after they left Meadville, they opened for a month in the Oak Room in the Algonquin in New York. After that they were going to London. And that regularly happens." Scott Hamilton, who from 1978 to 1996 was the most prolifically recorded jazz artist in the country, appearing on more than 175 albums, brought a tenor saxophone quartet to the Garner a couple of years ago. He closed in Japan three days earlier and stopped in Meadville on his way to the West Coast.

"I think one reason musicians sometimes come to Meadville is because they like the venue," Atteberry says. "It's very small. The performers are very close to the audience. The audiences are very educated and knowledgeable and appreciative. They [the performers] get paid as much coming to Meadville as they would anywhere else, plus they have this nice little venue and I think that is sometimes an attraction for them." Occasionally, the Allegheny Jazz Society also sponsors a major event. In September, it will join forces with Chautauqua Institute to present a Jazz at Chautauqua weekend featuring 23 musicians from throughout the nation. (See accompanying story.) As a member of the Allegheny Jazz Society, Atteberry does everything from moving tables and helping with the stage set-up to writing reviews and interviewing the musicians. Membership in the society has been a real spur to his writing because of the contacts and access to musicians it has provided him. Atteberry sold his first interview with a jazz musician in 1992. Since then, he has become a regular contributor to Coda Magazine, a Canadian publication with wide distribution in Europe; The Mississippi Rag, which is a traditional jazz publication, and Cadence Magazine, which focuses on interviews with jazz musicians. In addition to his magazine work, Atteberry also writes for jazz newsletters up and down the East Coast. So respected has he become, in fact, that when Ella Fitzgerald died a couple of years ago, Coda Magazine called on him to write a 3,000-word cover story on the jazz great and The Mississippi Rag asked him to write a 10,000-word overview of her work and life.

"I started doing interviews because I like to write, I always have, and I like to read and I like jazz," Atteberry says. "So, I guess it was natural that sooner or later all that would come together. And now I am as busy as can be." Atteberry estimates that he has interviewed and written about more than 30 mostly mainstream, traditional jazz musicians with a few modern artists thrown in. Along with composer Haggart and saxophonist Hamilton, his subjects have included Yank Lawson, former trumpeter for Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, and pianist Dave McKenna, a former member of the Woody Herman, Charlie Venture, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims bands.

Among the UPT faculty member's most unusual interview subjects was Adele Girard Marsala, who with her husband, Joe Marsala, was a regular on the 52nd Street jazz scene in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s. Marsala was unusual as a jazz musician both because of her sex and the fact that her instrument of choice was the harp.

In an interview just a few months before her death, Marsala described a jazz world "saturated with chauvinism and narrow mindedness both in terms or gender and instrumentation." Atteberry says, "She felt the harp was an interesting instrument to improvise on and could do some things that no other instrument could do, but that most of the people on 52nd Street in the 30s and 40s did not regard the harp as a jazz instrument and therefore did not give it a chance." Nearly everybody Atteberry has interviewed has been over the age of 70. He has deliberately chosen senior citizens of the jazz world to preserve the history they hold and because of the "longer vision" age has given them.

"They [his interview subjects] are all traditional to mainstream kinds of figures who have been around a long, long time and have had a lot of time to think about music and to think about where music fit in the scheme of life," he says. "Those are the kinds of questions I am interested in asking."

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 30 Issue 1

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