Burley Wilson jazzes up the city — one concert at a time

| Friday, July 8, 2011

It is a warm Tuesday afternoon, and the weekly crowd has gathered at Katz Plaza, Downtown, for part of what has become a year-round celebration of jazz.

It is one of Janis Burley Wilson's signature achievements, and she is busy talking with guests and musicians.

It is, in some ways, symbolic of her nine years with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and represents what she says is something of a mission. That mission has been a steadily growing effort, providing free and ticketed concerts for fans -- and work for musicians.

"When I started at the Cultural Trust, there was the idea of putting an educational element in every event Downtown," says Burley Wilson, vice president of the Trust's education and community engagement. "There was also the thought of creating a new audience Downtown."

Her boss, Kevin McMahon, the Trust's president, puts its simply.

"Janis gets things done," he says.

He recalls when the idea of the weekly, free shows came up in 2003, Burley Wilson booked a few acts and put together a plan of attack in 48 hours.

"Literally," he says. "Forty-eight hours."

Her work draws acclaim from those who deal with her.

"She fills a hole in the canvas," says trumpeter Sean Jones, who teaches at Duquesne University. "She presents a platform for various kinds of jazz and creates an educational element for everything she does."

Lane Cigna from Bank of New York Mellon, a sponsor of nearly all of Burley Wilson's jazz events with the Trust, says those programs are important in the way they display an "inspirational culture that fosters this as a dynamic place to live."

Burley Wilson says her love of the music comes from her father, Tom Burley, who was the co-owner and manager of the now-closed Crawford Grill on the Square in Station Square, South Side.

"Janis has never been unsuccessful," Tom Burley says. "She is a risk taker and thinks outside the box."

That sort of thinking has made itself apparent as she has provided a steady growth in her programming. The Katz Plaza concerts began as a summer event, but indoor concerts were added next door in the Cabaret Theater and Backstage Bar in 2005. In 2008, she began a series of April Jazz Appreciation Month concerts that have developed a stronger lineup each year. A nearly all-Pittsburgh lineup the first years has grown to include national talent such as vocalist master Jon Hendricks and newer stars Sachal Vasandani and Karrin Allyson.

She created late-night Valentine's Day programs with Jones and, this year, added the three-stage JazzLive International festival to the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival.

Her father and Jones believe part of her success comes from working in the Cultural Trust setting, which gives budgetary solidity to what she does.

"When you are in a club, you are out there hunting your food every night," Burley says, recalling the days of the Crawford, which closed in 2006 after 2 12 years of operation.

Ben Benack III, a young jazz performer studying at the Manhattan School of Music, looks at last month's festival as indicative of Burley Wilson's work. It included a rock-pop-soul band called Les Nubians that was far from traditional jazz and displays her creative thinking, he says.

"I see her at a lot of concerts that are not her own, checking out the music," says Benack, an Upper St. Clair native, who bears the name of his famous, cornet-playing grandfather.

Burley Wilson will turn 46 on Wednesday and is the mother of three. She was taking some time off work "raising kids" when a friend told her about the job opening at the Trust.

The Penn Hills native has a bachelor's degree in journalism/communications from the University of Pittsburgh and a master's in education from Duquesne. She was taking doctoral studies and working at the office of multicultural affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., when she moved back to Pittsburgh in 1997.

McMahon says Burley Wilson stood out as a candidate for the job immediately because of her work in multicultural affairs and her academic background, but also because of her love of music generally and jazz in particular.

That causes her to see programming elements that are "a little off-beat" -- such as Les Nubians -- that enable to Trust to try to "produce a balance of the arts in the Cultural District," says McMahon, who is pleased with the educational segments of the programming.

Her work probably entails about $1 million in spending at all levels, he says. But her success brings steady approval from the Trust, enabling her to begin work now on next May's jazz festival.

Marty Ashby, executive producer of MCG Jazz at the North Side's Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, lauds Wilson for her work and McMahon for "giving Janis the resources she needs."

He and the Guild have been involved in some jazz over the past few years, and he says they already are in talks about the next festival.

Burley Wilson is an avid explorer of festivals, because she has seen their importance to a city's setting. Right now, she's in Europe attending several and trying to get ideas that will help make Pittsburgh's event like Montreal's, Detroit's or Chicago's.

Drummer Roger Humphries, the reigning dean of the area's jazz players, says that sort of research is vital.

"She is always looking for a way to help jazz," he says. "And that is what Pittsburgh is all about."

Additional Information:


Catch some of the fruit of Janis Burley Wilson's labor with a lineup of free concert in Katz Plaza, Dowtown. They all begin at the happy hour of 5 p.m. Details: 412-456-6666

Tuesday: Kenia

July 19: Kenny Blake

July 26: Mark Lucas

Aug. 2: Tony Campbell

Aug 9: Gerald Haymon

Aug. 16: Brett Williams

Aug. 23: Salsamba

Aug. 30: Dwayne Dolphin

Sept. 6: JazzLive Jam

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