Pittsburgh Seniors and Jazz: How Music Gets Them Moving
Retired Pittsburgh police officer Brenda Tate recently established the monthly jazz connection program to get seniors socializing.
The lobby of Legacy Apartments in the Hill District came to life with the smooth melodies of jazz legends Duke Ellington, Stanley Turrentine and Anita Baker earlier this month, thanks to a spirited performance by saxophone great Tony Campbell and his band, Jazzsurgery.
Campbell and Jazzsurgery travel to senior citizen high-rise complexes throughout Allegheny County — mainly in the Hill District and Oakland — each month to bring upbeat music to residents in hopes of getting them out of their apartments and socializing with neighbors.
The Senior Jazz Connection program was started in January 2022 by 40-year Pittsburgh Police veteran and community activist Brenda Tate, a Hill District native. Various organizations partner with Tate to bring the jazz connection to seniors. Some partners include UPMC, Salem’s Market in the Strip District and Kim and Mel’s Catering. After each session, participants fill out surveys so Tate can collect input for potential future partnerships. Apartment managers have also been eager to write letters in support of the program.
“When I became a senior, it became very clear there were so many challenges in the community for seniors, especially safety concerns. I reached out to the AARP, and there was nothing for seniors to do in the community. It was such a great fit and such an easy concept for me because of my passion for jazz and being a senior,” Tate says.
She notes the feedback she and her goddaughter, Tonya Ford, have received from the program has been nothing but positive.
“It’s an indication that seniors are really starving to get out and socialize, particularly in the African American community,” Tate adds. “It’s tough to come out at this age. But, a lot of the residents know about my security-conscious mind and we are bringing the jazz to them.”
The Senior Jazz Connection has been picking up a good tempo since its inception. Tate and Ford hosted a New Year’s party at the Energy Innovation Center in the Hill District in December, where nearly 200 seniors jammed to jazz, ate healthy meals and enjoyed the fellowship.
“Tony is connected to everyone in Pittsburgh’s jazz scene,” Tate says. “He and the band are more than willing to travel to play for the seniors, and sometimes he’ll surprise me with guest vocalists. We were thrilled when Etta Cox performed during the New Year’s party.”
Jazz music also has deep roots in the Hill District, whose clubs in the past drew such greats as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Billy Eckstine and Turrentine.
“Jazz has always been here. It’s like the foot and the shoe. You can’t have the Hill District without jazz,” Tate laughs.
Campbell has been sharing his sultry tunes with the area since he was 13. Also a Hill District native, Campbell played the alto saxophone in school. He joined The Deltones in 1973, and became the band’s youngest soloist.
“They needed a soloist and whatever I played worked,” he humbly notes.
Following his music education at Berklee College of Music and the University of Pittsburgh, Campbell began an impressive career recording and touring with Roy Ayers. He also played with Roger Humphries and RH Factor, toured for 16 weeks with Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies and spent seven years performing on various cruise ships with artists such as Ben Vereen, Marvin Hamlisch and Diahann Carroll. Campbell is a current performer, producer and teacher who holds jazz jam sessions around Pittsburgh.
At Legacy Apartments, Campbell was joined by Howie Alexander on piano, Dan Wasson on bass and Andrew Kirk on drums.
One senior enjoying the music was Legacy resident Gloria Iverahim, a Hill District native and retired nurse.
“I’m going to be 80 this year and I just love it here,” she says. “I love jazz! They could play all day for me! We have some seniors who don’t typically leave their apartments, but they will come down for the music. It’s nice to have something down here and have entertainment.”
Iverahim stresses seniors need to get out of their apartments more and socialize with other people. She says the pandemic threw a wrench in the seniors’ social schedules, but they are slowly getting back into the groove with bingo starting up again soon.
Alberta Hughes, 70, also enjoys the music.
“I love it! If they could come every week, I’d be here,” she says. “I am starting to help with getting some programs going here. I feel the more movement people can do, the longer the blood will flow!”
Rhonda Johnson, general manager at Legacy Apartments, said the staff is hoping to integrate more programs to keep the 108 residents active.
“I think the Jazz Connection is wonderful, especially because it’s easily accessible.”
As for Campbell, he will play for the seniors any chance he gets.
“It’s amazing for me to give back, especially to the Hill District. I walked these streets and a lot of these people know me from when I was 13 playing. When I play these events, they know this music. These are my folks! It’s always a blessing to play for them.”
The next Senior Jazz Connection will be held from noon to 2 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, at 420 Dinwiddie St. in the Hill District.
To book a Senior Jazz Connection session, email Tate and Ford here. A Facebook page is also being created for the Senior Jazz Connection in the coming months.