by Mike Shanley | Aug 01 ’04
To a kid growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, guitarist Joe Negri was a celebrity. His face became familiar through his regular appearances on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which was filmed in town at PBS affiliate WQED Channel 13 and broadcast twice a day. As the proprietor of a music store, Negri introduced host Fred Rogers to musicians that, over the years, included Kenny Burrell and Ellis Marsalis. In the Neighborhood of Make-Believe segments, “Handyman” Negri served as the straight man/voice of reason to irascible characters like King Friday XIII or Lady Elaine Fairchilde. His duties in the Neighborhood often required the use of a guitar that dispensed some jazzy licks, too.
For years, my family attended the annual picnic of the Musicians Union Local 60-471. When I was about seven years old, Negri was scheduled to perform at the picnic. I was ecstatic. A few years earlier, I felt a charge upon visiting the Sculpture Hall at Carnegie Museum of Art-standing in the place where Negri posed for the cover photo of his Guitar With Love album. But the chance to be in the same room with him seemed like too much to handle.
As it turned out, it was.
After a few hours of eager anticipation, Negri entered the park pavilion with his trademark smile and upbeat demeanor, shaking hands with everyone who crossed his path. Friendly as he seemed, the impact of seeing him come to life beyond the TV screen or album cover can only be described as sensory overload. He scared me, and I was ready to leave. But Negri exuded warmth, and he calmed me down long enough for my parents to snap a Polaroid of me, Negri and my Kay acoustic guitar. I might have looked like a deer in the headlights, but Negri looked like he was having a good time.
In the years since my encounter, it’s likely that scores of other Pittsburgh kids have met Negri, with smoother results, thanks to his Jazz for Juniors programs or live appearances with cast members of Neighborhood. Television viewers across the country probably got regular doses of jazz from him and Johnny Costa, whose piano playing bookended every episode of Mister Rogers’. And he became a household name because of something he decided not to do: He stayed in Pittsburgh to raise his family rather than moving to New York to seek greater fame.
Joe Negri, 75, believes he was destined to work in the entertainment business in some way. Born in Pittsburgh, he began performing on radio at the age of three after his father, an amateur musician, taught him to play the ukulele and sing. Three years later he had his first guitar, and by the age of 15, he was ready to become a pro. “I can remember like it was yesterday, going to the Musicians Union. I was a year too young, but they let me in. And, I think the very next night I had my first gig at the University Club,” he says with a laugh, referring to one of Pittsburgh’s more exclusive venues. “I was 15 and playing with a society band.”
He toured with the Shep Fields Orchestra, but Negri felt more comfortable playing in trios with bass and drums. Occasionally he added a piano player such as his brother Bobby or Johnny Costa. When he joined the Army, Negri became friends with trumpeter Conte Candoli, who would pick up new records while on leave and bring them back to the base. One day Candoli returned with a 78 of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Groovin’ High” and “Salt Peanuts.” “We put it on and looked at each other and said, ‘That’s it, our careers are over. We’ll never learn how to do this,'” Negri recalls. “But we persevered and we learned it. I transcribed ‘Groovin’ High.’ We’d slow the record down and play a phrase at a time.”
By 1953, Negri was out of the Army and back in Pittsburgh, where his friend Costa convinced him to put his GI Bill money toward studies at Carnegie Tech. Negri majored in composition since guitar performance wasn’t a major yet. Nikolai Lopatnikoff, one of his instructors, tried to focus the young guitarist, who spent a lot of time jamming with his classmates. “He said, ‘When you play like that, it’s just gone. Nobody ever gets to appreciate it. Either channel it by writing it or channel it by recording it,'” Negri says. “It wasn’t until many years later that Chick Corea and people like that came along and started writing it in more extended forms.”
But Negri was more than happy to keep improvising. He left Carnegie Tech after three years, just as the big-band era was coming to a close, but his heart was in another area anyway. “I didn’t know what it meant, but they call it ‘chamber jazz’ now, and that was always where my heart was and that’s what I wanted to do,” he says. “Not so much solo guitar, [although] I’ll do a little of that, but I just like a bass and drums, sometimes a piano, and that’s fine with me.”
Like most guitarists of that era, Jimmy Raney and Tal Farlow influenced Negri the most. He says Joe Pass, who grew up east of Pittsburgh in Johnstown, can be considered an influence as well as a peer. “We were close in age and we had a similar background. We both joined a band when we were young kids. He went with Tony Pastor and was featured. I went with Shep Fields and was featured,” he says.
Jim Hall ranks as his favorite modern guitar player. “I like the mellowness in his sound, his linear quality,” Negri says. “He has a Bach-like quality to his lines.” Similar qualities can be heard in Negri’s own playing. He can start a phrase with a rapid ascent up the scale to a note that begins a lush chord or melody line. “I like to use as much of the guitar as I can,” he explains. “I think when I was young I had a lot of ‘chops,’ but as I’ve matured, I’ve learned to control the chops and use them to my advantage, so to speak. I like to stay within the confines of the chord changes and build my lines around that.”
Guitarists Tony Mottola and Bucky Pizzarelli were friends with Negri, and he admired them for their chops as well as for their ability to raise a family and make a living as musicians in New York City. Negri and his wife, Joni, headed there in 1960 to see if it was possible for him to follow their lead. “In about three or four days, I saw the way my friends were raising their kids,” he recalls. “They had nannies, the kids couldn’t go out, somebody had to take your kid to the park for a few hours to play. And I said to Joni, ‘This isn’t worth it. Let’s just go back home.'”
As fate would have it, Pittsburgh television afforded him so much work, Negri says, “I felt like I was having my cake and eating it.” He spent a few years working for KDKA, the local CBS affiliate. For 22 years, starting in 1965, Negri served as a musical director for WTAE, Pittsburgh’s ABC affiliate, working on children’s shows like Ricki and Copper and Adventure Time, and doing soundtracks for local documentaries.
He also released Guitar With Love, a quartet date that included Dick Hyman on organ and Negri’s Pittsburgh friend Jim DiJulio on bass. The details of the album’s drummer and year of release are fuzzy, although Negri remembers it being released during “the Nehru period,” a recollection borne out by his threads on the front cover. The album attempted to merge pop and jazz, opening with a version of Spanky and Our Gang’s pop hit “Lazy Day,” and going on to include Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” and John Lewis’ “Django.” The organ makes it sound a little dated today, closer to a soap opera soundtrack than a Jimmy Smith record, but Negri’s solos override any shortcomings, especially in his flowing work on the ballad “A Time for Love.”
It was also during the early ’60s that Negri hooked up with Fred Rogers. A decade earlier, Rogers had worked on the PBS program The Children’s Corner as a puppeteer, musician and writer of both scripts and music. Now, he was putting together Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and he asked Negri to act as a recurring cast member.
Every episode included a few of Rogers’ positive-message songs, which included some jazz colorings thanks to pianist Costa. “He would subtly put in a jazz change here or there, or fix up the rhythm-touch it up and give it a little jazz quality,” Negri says. “And Fred was always agreeable to that.”
Negri wasn’t part of the band that played over the show’s credits, but he regularly played Rogers’ songs and even wrote a tune that was used in the show, “A Handy Lady and a Handy Man.” “It was the funniest thing. Fred was really kind of possessive about the music,” Negri recalls. “He did it all, wrote all the songs. So when he gave me the script and I saw my song in it, I was so surprised and pleased.”
Along with his popularity from television, Negri has become a visible presence in Pittsburgh as a performer and an instructor. In light of his role on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he was a natural fit as the host of Jazz for Juniors, a program he created in 1990 to introduce children to jazz, going from New Orleans to Sesame Street, as Negri describes it. Held at various locations around town, it straddles education with audience involvement. “I always wanted to make it a little more educational, but when you do that, you lose the showbiz angle of it,” he says.
Negri has also spent the last 20 years as an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh, with similar appointments following at Duquesne University and Carnegie Mellon. When giving private lessons, he utilizes a purist approach. “I always go back to my bebop roots. That’s what I teach and I think that’s valid and important,” he says. “These past few weeks, I’ve been teaching them ‘Joy Spring,’ [which involves] getting horn articulation on the guitar. It requires slurring and hammering, gliding-not just up and down picking.”
At an age when most people are retired, Negri clearly relishes the benefits of teaching new students. “Thank god for the teaching. It’s not a chore and I find that it keeps me on my toes,” he says. “It keeps me young and it keeps me playing.”
This year has been a busy one for him already. In April, he received an Elsie Award, an honor given to Pittsburghers who have demonstrated love of community, compassion for others and use of communication to have a positive effect on society named for Pittsburgh Republican leader Elsie Hillman. And a new Negri CD is scheduled, which comes five years after Afternoon in Rio, the long-awaited follow-up to Guitar With Love. The new album, Uptown Elegance, was recorded at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh and finds the guitarist joined by a big band on three songs, a trombone quartet on two more and a small group on the rest. Among the tracks, one pays tribute to Fred Rogers, by casting his theme song, “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” as a Brazilian samba.
While clearly excited about the upcoming release, the guitarist says he’s never had the chance to make what he calls a “really straightahead Joe Negri album,” in a trio, and with either a horn or piano. “I think I’m really at my best there,” he says. “I can do my chordal thing and I can do my single-line thing.”
But for the time being, Negri is grateful that he has the chance to play regularly and teach part-time, both at his own pace. “I now have the ability to do more of what I want to do, which I like,” he explains. “I don’t have to be so concerned with making a living. I grew up in one of those families where you had to make a living and put food on the table. I was always ingrained with that work ethic. Now I have a little more time to do what I want to do.”