Pittsburgh retirees and jazz: How music keeps them moving


tthe lobby of Legacy Apartments in the Hill District came alive with the smooth tunes of jazz legends Duke Ellington, Stanley Turrentine and Anita Baker earlier this month, thanks to a lively performance by a great saxophonist Tony Campbell and his band Jazzsurgery.

Campbell and Jazzsurgery travel to high-rise senior housing complexes throughout Allegheny County — primarily the Hill District and Oakland — each month to provide upbeat music to residents in hopes of getting them out of their apartments and interacting with neighbors.

The Senior Jazz Connection program was launched in January 2022 by 40-year Pittsburgh police veteran and community activist Brenda Tate, a native of the Hill District. Various organizations partner with the Tate to bring the jazz connection to older people. Some partners include UPMC, Salem’s Market on the Strip and Kim and Mel’s Catering. After each session, participants complete surveys so Tate can gather information about potential future partnerships. Apartment managers were also eager to write letters in support of the program.

“When I became a retiree, it became very clear that there are so many challenges in the community for older people, especially safety concerns. I contacted AARP and there was nothing for seniors in the community to do. It was such a good fit and such an easy concept for me because of my passion for jazz and being a senior,” says Tate.

She notes that 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, especially in the African-American community,” adds Tate. “It’s hard to come out at that age. But many of the residents know about my security-conscious mind, and we bring them the jazz.”

The Senior Jazz Connection has been gaining momentum since its inception. Tate and Ford hosted a New Year’s Eve party at the Hill District Energy Innovation Center in December, where nearly 200 seniors played jazz, ate healthy food and enjoyed socializing.

“Tony is connected to everyone in the Pittsburgh jazz scene,” Tate says. “He and the band are more than willing to travel to play for seniors and sometimes he’ll surprise me with guest vocalists. We were thrilled when Etta Cox played at the New Year’s party.”

Jazz music also has deep roots in the Hill District, whose clubs have in the past attracted greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Billy Eckstein 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 years old. Also born in the Hill District, Campbell played alto saxophone at school. He joined The Deltones in 1973 and became the group’s youngest lead singer.

“They needed a lead singer and whatever I played worked,” he notes humbly.

Following his musical 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 Humphreys and the 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 hosts jazz jam sessions around Pittsburgh.

At the Legacy Apartments, Campbell was joined by Howie Alexander on piano, Dan Wasson on bass and Andrew Kirk on drums.

One adult enjoying the music was Legacy resident Gloria Iverachim, a Hill District native and retired nurse.

“I’ll be 80 this year and I just love it here,” she says. “I love jazz! They can play all day for me! We have some seniors who don’t usually leave their apartments but will come down for the music. It’s nice to have something down here and have fun.”

Iverachim emphasizes that elderly people should get out of their apartments more and communicate with other people. She says the pandemic has thrown a wrench into seniors’ social schedules, but they are slowly getting back on track, with bingo set to start again soon.

Alberta Hughes, 70, also enjoys music.

“I love it! If they could come every week, I’d be here,” she says. “I’m starting to help run some programs here. I feel like the more movement people can do, the longer the blood will flow!” “

Rhonda Johnson, general manager of Legacy Apartments, said staff hopes to integrate more programs to keep the 108 residents active.

“I think Jazz Connection is great, especially because it’s easily accessible.”

As for Campbell, he will play for the seniors at every opportunity.

“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 playing at 13. When I play these events, they know this music. These are my people! It’s always a blessing to play for them.”

The next Senior Jazz Connection will be held from noon to 2 p.m., Friday, February 10, at 420 Dinwiddie St. in the Hill District.

To book a Senior Jazz Connection session, email Tate and Ford here. A Facebook page for the Senior Jazz Connection is also being created in the coming months.

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