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A life in tune: Negri has proved handy on the guitar

Sunday, March 02, 2003

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Joe Negri's been playing guitar so long he can hardly remember a time he wasn't.

Joe Negri, photographed in his home in Scott, will present a "Mass of Hope" at 9:30 this morning in the Holiday Inn Select, Oakland, as part of the Winter JazzFest sponsored by the Pittsburgh Jazz Society and Duquesne University. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

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William Condeluci

Slim Bryant

William Charles Dobie

This occasional series profiles long-time performers and aficionados to mine their memories and knowledge of a lifetime in music.

For a few minutes back in the 1940s, he had a notion of becoming a sports announcer, hoping to be legendary in the mold of his childhood idols, Pirate broadcasters Bob Prince and Rosey Rowswell. As with most kids who love baseball, he knew he was never going to play professionally but figured he could be involved in sports on another level.

But that notion went away -- gone as quickly as he learned to play "Flight of the Bumblebee."

Negri, who most will recognize as the affable Handyman Negri on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," is an educator, composer and articulate guitarist who makes music that flows in waves of imagination and lyricism.

In 1990, he and drummer H.B. Bennett started the successful Jazz for Juniors program. The hour-long programs, held at the Jewish Community Center in Scott, typically treat more than 100 children, teens and parents to an evening of music and fun.

In 1999, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust honored him with a Creative Achievement Award.

To hear him tell it, though, anyone can do what he does with a little discipline and practice.

"Joe is a musician's musician and an artist with an identity," says trumpeter, longtime friend and collaborator Danny Conn. "You can be wearing blindfolds, and when he plays you can recognize the sound. He knows a few thousand songs, but if he hasn't heard a song before and someone plays the melody, he can improvise the chords. ... That takes an experienced ear."

A child performer himself, Negri became familiar in neighborhoods nationwide beginning Feb. 19, 1968, when PBS began beaming Fred Rogers' show across the country.

Joe Negri, seen here at age 5, sang weekly on the "Uncle Henry" children's show, a 1930s-era KDKA radio program.

"I had never done any acting so I was a little nervous about that initially," says Negri with a chuckle. "But Fred was great, and I quickly became at ease with it because I decided to just be myself. I also got an opportunity to play a little on the music shop."

Rogers, who died last week after a short bout with stomach cancer, spoke recently of his appreciation for Negri.

"Joe is not only the best Royal Handyman in the neighborhood, he is a consummate jazz musician who delights us all," Rogers said a few weeks ago.

Negri, 74, grew up on Mount Washington, and by the time he was 3, he was already performing. He sang weekly on the "Uncle Henry" children's show, a 1930s-era radio program on KDKA. Tunes such as "Sunny Side of the Street" and "Love Thy Neighbor" quickly became part of his repertory.

"I think it was the hope and dream of many parents during the 1930s that their children, if they had musical talent, would make it to Hollywood," says Negri, sitting at a table in his home in Scott. "We were hard-pressed for money, and many child performers were making it big in Hollywood, people like Shirley Temple, Jackie Cooper and Judy Garland."

Negri never made it to Hollywood, but the music continued.

After leaving the "Uncle Henry" show, his dad, Michael, gave him a ukulele, and he began to sing and accompany himself. The solo act eventually became Joe Negri and the Rhythm Boys, a tap group that also featured his brother, Bobby, and a cousin, Harold "Mutsy" Amato. The group didn't make any money, but they performed at local schools and amateur shows and for Italian organizations.

After a couple of years, Negri got tired of the group and started playing the guitar. For the next five years, he took lessons from Victor Lawrence, who had a studio at Volkwein's Music on Liberty Avenue. During this time he learned to play Eddie Lang's "Pickin' My Way" and performed his first jazz solo on "Swanee River." That solo was eventually placed in one of Lawrence's guitar method books.

Still, Negri wasn't happy, and for a while he lost interest in music.

"My dad was having a tough time trying to keep me focused," says Negri. "I was playing well and could even play 'Flight of the Bumblebee,'" an especially difficult piece for guitarists. "I was 13 at that time in my life, and I really wanted to become a sports announcer."

Concerned, the elder Negri introduced his son to Dom Trimarkie, an accordion player and family friend.

"My dad told Trimarkie, 'I don't know what to do with this kid. He doesn't seem to want to play anymore. Maybe you can come down and talk to him.'"

Trimarkie did.

"I took him under my wing," says Trimarkie, 83. "His dad asked me to help him, and I am proud of what that kid has become.

"I took him around town and introduced him to some of the players. We eventually worked together on the 'Buzz 'N' Bill' [TV show] and at the Roosevelt and William Penn hotels and other places. He did all right for himself."

After Negri started playing again, he joined a local dance band and was introduced to jazz recordings by guitarists Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and Les Paul. He transcribed a few solos from the records and was hooked on the music.

When the Shep Fields band had an opening for a guitar player, Negri quit school and enlisted his services.

He was 16.

The band crisscrossed the country playing tunes such as "Ritual Fire Dance" and "Jersey Bounce" and featured the great saxophonist Serge Chaloff, who later joined Woody Herman's Second Herd.

Negri also had a featured solo spot in the band but was forced to leave after two years because the Army came calling.

He was stationed in Germany and then was sent to Fort Lee, Va., where he met trumpeter Conti Condoli, who introduced him to bebop. After his discharge, he turned down an opportunity to join Woody Herman's band because he wanted to return to Pittsburgh."I had been gone since I was 16. I never really had the constitution for the road," he says.

He eventually started the Joe Negri Trio with his brother Bobby, a pianist, and bassist John Vance. It was a trio sans drums, in the tradition of Nat King Cole's band. The group worked in popular clubs such as the Midway Lounge, Mercer's and the Hollywood Showbar.

"The scene was really great then," recalls Negri, whose group would back up featured artists such as Bobby Hackett, Charlie Shavers and Roy Eldridge, to name a few.

"It was always great working together," says his brother Bobby. "He plays the guitar like a piano player. When you play with him, you accompany him. He knows all the tunes and taught me many chord progressions."

In 1950, Negri met the late pianist Johnny Costa, who was to become music director of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." He encouraged Negri to attend Carnegie Mellon University.

"Johnny kept saying, 'Why don't you come to school?' And I would say, 'What am I going to do, Johnny? Carnegie Mellon won't even recognize the guitar.' And Johnny said, 'You can do something else.'"

Negri was always interested in composing, so he secured an audition and was accepted into the music school as a composition major.

"I picked up a lot of stuff growing up -- pop, jazz -- and I knew about harmony. But I had never had any real formal training," he says. "Carnegie Mellon molded me and helped me to put all of that into perspective. I found out why all these things happened.

"I learned about harmony and counterpoint. It was like this great awakening. School also taught me to express myself and to become a better-rounded person."

After 2 1/2 years, he left CMU to lead a trio on the "Buzz 'N' Bill Show," a weekday program carried on WDTV-TV (now KDKA) in 1954. The other players were accordionist Trimarkie and bassist Lou Mauro.

Negri continued to perform in clubs and concerts. During a performance at Conneaut Lake in 1953, he met his future wife, Joni. The couple were married a year later and have three daughters.

"She has helped me to organize my career," he says. "She has made a business of my career. She convinced me to stop quoting 1950 prices for my band."

After the "Buzz 'N' Bill Show" ended, Negri moved to "The John Reed King Show," a variety-music-talk show. Negri led another trio with drummer Chuck Spadifore and bassist Jimmy DeJulio.

"We started together when I was young," says Spadifore. "Joe is an incredible player and a delight to work with. He is a perfectionist who can transpose music and play in any key. It was truly an honor to work with him."

In the early '60s, Negri became music director of WTAE-TV's live programs, a position he held for more than 20 years. It was around this time he entered the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, joining Fred Rogers' cast of characters.

Jazz fans can delight in more recent Negri magic as well. His 1998 CD, "Afternoon in Rio, "is an excellent introduction to his music. And this morning at 9:30, the mild-mannered guitarist will present a Latin-based "Mass of Hope" concert in the Holiday Inn Select, Oakland, as part of the Winter JazzFest sponsored by the Pittsburgh Jazz Society and Duquesne University.

"I'm still a work in progress," he says. "There are many musical things I want to accomplish. Music has never been an easy business, but I honestly wouldn't change it for anything in the world."

Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.

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