Yes, the Square is alive with the sound of music these days. Whether it's a free lunchtime concert in the summer or bands entertaining during the evenings at NOLA and other night-life hot spots, you can tap your feet to the beat year-round in the Square. And if you listen closely enough, you almost hear the sweet sounds of Walt Harper tickling the ivories coming from the space above the current Bruegger's Bagel shop in a magical place Pittsburghers once knew simply as "the Attic."
From 1969 to 1976, the Steel City's very own piano man ruled a musical kingdom that drew loyal followers from rank and file Downtown workers, local political and business movers and shakers, and sports superstars like Roberto Clemente, Terry Bradshaw, L.C. Greenwood, and basketball great Connie Hawkins. And on any given night, jazz greats such as Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Cannonball Adderley or the Modern Jazz Quartet would headline at the Attic. The music might start on the downbeat, but it was always an upbeat experience at the Attic with Walt Harper and his Quintet, described by music critics of the day as one of the tightest jazz combos in the entire U.S.
What's especially noteworthy about the Attic is that it was one of the few Downtown jazz clubs in the country owned by an African American. But there was never a color line at the Attic as far as the talented Mr. Harper was concerned. With a following of loyal white fans who first discovered him when he entertained at the legendary Crawford Grill in the Hill District, Walt proved that music transcended race and other differences between people.
Now, according to old news stories, the Attic is part of a story of a revived Market Square, drawing people in with exciting evening activity. Hmmm...kind of sounds familiar, doesn't it? Don't forget, the Market Houses came down only eight years earlier and were replaced by a flat park, leaving fewer reasons to come to the Square and less foot traffic for other businesses in the area. Back then, a state liquor store did its business in the Bruegger's location, and the Attic moved into the second floor above it, formerly the inscrutably named Mystic Tea Room (pictured here). With two dance floors, the Attic was designed to look like... a real attic. But whatever the decor, Walt and his musical guests shook the rafters with a specially designed sound system. For a lucky seven-year streak, Walt struck the right chord night after night and helped kick start one of the earlier transformations of the Square.
The state store and many other businesses that were in the Square back then have long disappeared. But, the memories of Walt Harper, who died in 2006, still resonate within the hearts and minds of so many Pittsburghers who climbed the stairs to the Attic. Nearly 40 years after the final coda, Walt Harper fans remember a musical giant who lived his life the way he played jazz — with many a grace note.
For more information on Walt Harper's life (off Market Square), we recommend checking out the Old Mon Music blog.