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Hill District's onetime jazz mecca Crawford Grill waits for second chance

| Sunday, March 6, 2016, 11:20 p.m.
The boarded-up entrance to the Crawford Grill in the Hill District.

This building deserves a future to match its storied past.

Isolated on the corner of Wylie Avenue and Elmore Street in the Hill District, the Crawford Grill wears reminders that deep affection for the former jazz club remains. Thirteen years after the landmark closed, recently placed Valentine's Day hearts remain taped to the front of the building near its boarded-up front door.

One references one of Miles Davis' best-known albums with the message, “I'm feeling 'Kind of Blue' without you.”

Another simply states: “Invest in me.”

In 2010, people did. Several nonprofits and a group of individual investors, including Steelers Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, purchased the building for $250,000 and announced ambitious plans for it.

Six years later, the most obvious signs of activity around the old grill are the hearts out front. What gives?

“It's all about finding the money to do it right,” said Jessica Lee, a local jazz and blues vocalist. She also is vice president and program director of Pittsburgh Gateways, a nonprofit economic development group and part of the grill's ownership group. “It's about bringing back the Crawford Grill in a viable and sustainable way.”

A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker remains outside this second Crawford Grill. The original, about 10 blocks west on Wylie, was destroyed in a 1951 fire.

The place was more than viable for decades under owner William “Buzzy” Robinson, drawing a racially mixed crowd to the predominantly black Hill to hear some of the city's and the nation's best jazz musicians.

In addition to the aforementioned Davis, the artists who played there included John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Billy Eckstine, Mary Lou Williams, Chet Baker, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington and others.

But the club's popularity gradually waned from its days as Pittsburgh's jazz Mecca, and when the doors shut, no one expected them to reopen. That is, until the current owners bought the building and announced plans to expand the nightclub space to the adjacent vacant lot and convert the upper floors into studio and musical instructional space.

What's been accomplished since then?

“Only maintenance work,” Lee acknowledged. “Basically keeping garbage off the property, getting the grass cut.”

According to Lee, the owners are attempting to raise the approximately $3 million they believe they need to properly renovate the building.

“They expected it would take time,” she said. “Remember, this is a group of social investors who came together to make sure the building didn't become a parking lot. They didn't come into this with a full business plan.”

Lee said it's more a matter of when the club will reopen than if it will. Here's hoping she's right. The sound of jazz deserves to flow again at the Crawford Grill.

For far too long it's languished in a condition that's also the title of another Miles Davis album: “In a Silent Way.”

Eric Heyl is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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