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Senior Jazzes Up History

Clamoring steel, Jewish prayers, big bands, the rumble of cars: These sounds build the sonic landscape of music major David Zahniser’s album, “The Crossroads,” which explores the history of Pittsburgh’s Hill District by linking stories of Jewish and African American heritage.

Prior to the mass arrival of African Americans in the Steel City as part of the Great Migration, the Hill grew as the home of working class immigrants in the late 19th century, most notably from Eastern Europe. This population included many Jewish people. In the 20th century, the Hill District became the center of Pittsburgh’s African American community and hosted one of the country’s most vibrant places for jazz and African American organizations. Temporally separated, these two waves of immigrants shared the same draw toward the jobs offered by Pittsburgh’s steel mills.

a person on a bus
Zahniser’s six songs connect these working class histories through time into an immersive, multilayered experience. He completed the bulk of the work last summer, supported by a Brackenridge Fellowship, but recently presented the history and concept via Zoom in April.

In the album, standard Jewish tunes, prayers and celebrations are blended with jazz: “I basically did each one of these songs in a different jazz style to try to illuminate the jazz history of it and what was happening in the African American musical trajectory,” Zahniser said.

“Crossroads” also takes its name from a quote by famed Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay in which he called the Hill District “the crossroads of the world.”

Kenneth Powell, professor of music and Zahniser’s mentor on the project, said that while most people are familiar with the term “melting pot” and might use it for the Hill, it makes more sense to consider the area a “salad bowl” where each ingredient “represents something important to the total makeup of the salad without losing authenticity.” Much like the album, he said, each piece retains its own elements and contributes “harmoniously—no pun intended” to the vibrancy of the Hill.

a man in a black hat and jacket
Zahniser does not neglect the painful history of discrimination that undergirded the area, either. Bound on all sides by segregation, the vibrant musical culture that emerged from the Hill did so out of survival. Zahniser connects this confrontation with discriminatory practices to the story of more recent Jewish immigrants to the Hill, reflecting its history as a “socialist hotbed” filled with working class immigrants demanding labor rights.

“There was very much a socialist fervor in the Hill District” midcentury, he explained.

With the 1960s came the deliberate dismantling of the Hill District by Pittsburgh’s urban planners, the effects of which continues to reverberate in the community today.

Tying the struggles of the historic Hill to the present day, Zahniser interpolates sounds from the 2020 protests following the death of George Floyd and a particularly moving complaint from a resident who says “I gotta go off the Hill just to get medication.” Ending the album this way reminds listeners that history does not simply fade away, but shapes our current reality.

Zahniser said that exploring this history helped him connect to the history and community of Pittsburgh, but emphasized that the album represents just “a small tip of the iceberg of the actual history of the Hill District.”

Said Powell of the effort: “It opens the door for others to come in and do some scholarly, finite, investigation and research regarding what transpired in the Hill District.”

This story was written by Justin P. Jones, a student reporter for Pittwire.

David Zahniser walked listeners through the origin and construction of “The Crossroads” during an April webinar, available on the Jewish studies website. Listen to the full album on YouTube.