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A Look into Pittsburgh’s Vibrant Music Scene and its Deep-Rooted History with Chloe Simpson

Written and Interviewed by Ami Klinghoffer

Photography by Colin Tierney

Screening photos provided by Post Genre

Pittsburgh’s diverse music scene is integral to the city’s identity and has shaped the lives of its residents for decades. Chloe Simpon, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in film and media, alongside urban studies, takes us through the history of Pittsburgh’s unique sound in, The Scene Will Never Die: A Documentary on Pittsburgh Music History, detailing the genres and voices that have been a cornerstone of the city’s soundscape from the first half of the 20th century to the present day. Simpson delves into the political and social factors that have influenced the scene through a series of discussions with prominent scholars and musicians. In this interview, we learn about her journey making the documentary and future steps to revive the music scene in Oakland.

Tell us about how you got started with your documentary.

I got started with the documentary because I heard about this fellowship that Pitt has called the Creative Arts Fellowship. Basically, I wrote a proposal, sent that in, and my proposal was for a completely different project. I still wanted to do a documentary, but I wanted to do something that was about small businesses in Pittsburgh. My two majors are film and media, and urban studies, so I knew I wanted to intersect them in some way. I started originally with that, but then we started having meetings as part of the fellowship and I started thinking about it more and I was like, I’m not really feeling passionate about my idea anymore for that, what should I do? I really like going to shows here and I really like music, so I was like, Pittsburgh probably has some interesting music history because any city has interesting music history. So then it did, and I was able to learn about that through the process of making it and it was really cool to see because there’s a lot of history here and a lot of people don’t recognize it. Especially me – I’ve only been here for two years, I’m from Maryland – coming from an outside perspective, I really felt like I was able to learn a lot about it just by talking to people who had experienced it and talking to people who knew more about it than me. It was nice to be able to do that and work on it during the summer and find people to contact, people to reach out to, and just see how everyone was so excited about it. 

Everyone wanted to talk to me, everyone wanted to share their feelings on it, they wanted to share their history. They were really excited, especially some of the older people like Johnny Angel who has a little museum in the North Side. He was with Johnny Angel and the Halos – they were a big doo-wop soul group in the ‘60s – and he has a museum that has all of these historical music artifacts, like jackets from famous bands that came out of Pittsburgh, like the Supremes, so he has met a lot of people. He’s friends with James Brown, and he met him from playing in Pittsburgh. It was a really cool experience.

What was something surprising that you realized after doing all this research and interviewing so many people?

I think just the extent to how big the music scene was here, and how Pittsburgh isn’t ordinarily a place where people are like, “Oh yeah, there’s music there.” Someone even commented on my documentary something like, “Pittsburgh music scene? What? What do you mean?” First of all, he wasn’t even from Pittsburgh so he has no idea, and second of all, I was like, no, there is a vibrant scene here. The scene wasn’t just something that was in the past, but it was very powerful in the past, like the jazz in the Hill District of the 1930s and onward towards the 40s and 50s. It was really a place for people to gather and it was a place for people to congregate, and learn music, and learn how to play, and talk to other musicians – that kind of stuff really facilitates innovation in music. Like, look at Earl “Fatha” Hines, he invented a new way of playing the piano which is really cool, and that came from Pittsburgh. He would play with the people who came through because it was kind of the midpoint between Chicago and New York, so a lot of jazz artists would come through and the people here would play with them and they would learn from them and develop their own specific Pittsburgh sound, which I thought was really cool. 

It's cool to also know about the music later and how music changed, and times changed, and whatever was popular like jazz wasn’t as popular anymore, but – I mean it still is in the city like they have Con Alma and there’s a lot of jazz in the city still which is awesome. But just seeing how it changed, how rock ‘n roll and punk came in, and there were a bunch of different venues like the Graffiti, and Syria Mosque, and The Decade, and just a lot of music. It’s interesting to see how it began to decline in the 2000s because people just weren’t going as much and a lot of the venues started to shut down mostly just because it was getting too expensive in the area, especially in Oakland because Pitt was buying up all the properties. If you walk down Forbes Street now, a lot of it is just chain restaurants because no small businesses can even afford property there as a huge student area, which happens in a lot of cities with a lot of Universities. 

It’s interesting to see how outside factors impact culture, or in reverse, how culture impacts the other factors, too. By the end of the steel industry, a lot of people left the city after that so there’s all this space now and I think that space is really interesting because it is literally empty physical space that gives room for art now. If you go to the North Side there are a bunch of big warehouses and there’s all this stuff and there’s no big industry, really, in Pittsburgh anymore so something has to take that space. I think art and music has the opportunity to grow in the city and it already is because there’s a lot of stuff, like a lot of stuff happening now. It has been really cool to look back into history because it’s so important to see how it has been in the past when you’re looking towards the future because our past shapes basically everything. 

It has made me excited about intertwining different forms of my interests into creating something physical which is really fun, and I know it’s just a starting point, too. There’s a lot I want to do in the city and there’s a lot more to talk about, not even just music. I just applied for a fellowship – which hopefully I’ll get – to make a series of mini documentaries focusing on different Pittsburgh subcultures and things that are going on here, both historical and current, just to highlight how important it is to have a space for music to go, and not even just music – places for people to go to enjoy art, music, culture, anything like that. So I think that’s what the film really taught me.

In the documentary, you covered a lot about how the venues had such a big impact on the music scene and how they were the places everyone would congregate. How do you think that has changed today? Do you think this new age of technology is encouraging people to remain more isolated?

One of the things I’ve been looking into recently is the idea of third places which is basically this idea, coined by Ray Oldenburgh in the ‘80s, that home is the first place, work is the second place – or school in our case – and a third place is somewhere that anyone can go to be with other people that doesn’t have a crazy financial barrier to it. And, nowadays, especially post-COVID, I think people are just more isolated and there are also just less of those places because now with capitalism and everything, if you want to hang out with your friends you have to go to a restaurant and spend like 30 dollars or something. It’s really hard not to spend money in the world today. Looking back at how the venues were really cheap or just free for people and how important that was because it facilitates community if it’s a place that people can go to every single week and there’s going to be music, and there's going to be the same people there, and they’re all people that ideally live in or nearby the community – that really brings the community together. 

The third place was a big thing for Oakland when it was all steelworkers and now that it’s not and it’s all students and residents who live in Oakland, there’s no interconnection because the students are there for such a short time that they don’t really connect with actual residents that are here their whole lives and have seen all this change happen. So having a community space where people from the neighborhood can all come together would have so many benefits. People who are lonely would have somewhere to go, and that’s how you form your identity – just talking to people and meeting people. So, having that space is important, and it’s also important for safety. If you’re walking on the street you’re going to be scared if you don’t know anybody who lives in your neighborhood, it just feels less safe. But if you’re walking on the street and you see people you know, it’ll feel safer and I think we need that a lot so having those places and communities is really important.

In your documentary, there was discussion of this desire for a new indie music venue in Oakland for college students and local residents to enjoy. Do you think this is a real possibility as a means to revive the music scene here?

I don’t want to say too much because I’m pretty sure it’s happening, but nothing’s finalized. There’s the church on Atwood street and they are working with the innovation district and will probably have a show there in December. Having a space like that, this big empty church that has just been sitting empty for so long, I think it is possible because they’ve been working on it for two years and they are probably going to have a show there hopefully, if all things go well. So it definitely is possible, it just requires creativity, it requires working under a system that’s already set in place. A big family owns that church and they let the Pittsburgh Innovation District use it. So, working under structures that are in place and sneakily advocating for that. 

Someone was telling me, “I wanna play more shows in Oakland,” and I looked at their page and they’ve already played at Black Lodge, West Egg, and the only other one is the Atwood place and I was like, “Oh man, you’ve already played at two of the three places in Oakland right now.” Oakland is kind of in a weird time because there are less and less house venues and less basement shows. Basement shows are awesome, but there are a lot of problems that come with them, like noise complaints, and you’ll get the police called because you’ll be loud, and there’s also residential people, so I completely understand. People don’t want to hear loud music if they have work in the morning and they want to go to sleep. 

So having a place that’s set aside like a whole church for that would be honestly perfect and it would bring the community together because anyone from the area could come and enjoy it. It’s definitely feasible and I hope that we’re able to continue working on it and communicating with the Innovation District and different groups and maybe using that space for things other than music, too, like having vendors in there, or having a little place people can go to during the day with tables or something as a gathering place for people that’s free, like a library or park – that kind of idea. I think it might take some more work but if enough people are involved and enough people are passionate about it, anything can happen.

Community in music and bringing people together is a common theme throughout your documentary. Do you think community in the music scene today compares to past decades, or do you think it’s not as strong as it used to be?

It definitely exists. I think it definitely has gone a bit underground because there are a lot of really cool venues that exist, not just in Oakland, but all around Pittsburgh and there is music pretty much every single day. If you go on @pghmusictracker on Instagram they post all of the shows that they find out about that are upcoming which is awesome, so there’s definitely a lot going on, but I think it is a little more niche and a little more disconnected than it used to be mostly because there isn’t as big of a community in one place so it’s kind of a bit fragmented. I also don’t know the extent of this and I could be completely wrong because I don’t know other neighborhoods where these venues are, but that’s something I want to learn more about. I’ve only lived in Oakland, but my impression is that it is a bit more spread out and fragmented, but still very much there and very passionate.

How do you think we can get people more involved in the Pittsburgh music scene and forge a stronger sense of community in the process?

We need to be getting the word out more and this can be accomplished through a lot of different things. I think that having some sort of community group – and this could be online, in person, or both – but having some sort of forum or place for people to come together and talk about maybe posting show flyers or being like, “Hey is anybody looking for a bassist.”  You could have that kind of community and I think there are some facebook groups, but I wish there was one central place for people to come together and have that conversation and maybe some sort of group forum that could focus on that, promoting culture and art, and partnering with all these different venues and stuff – I think that would be very powerful. Also,  promotions for shows and having people show up for shows. When I came here it was a little bit hard to find the music scene – when you come here you kind of have to look for it a little bit. Making it more mainstream in some places and making it more accessible to everyone is possible through more promo, putting up flyers around the city, social media is a good tool, and also just word of mouth. There’s a lot of different ways, but I think it would be really improved by some sort of community group or online forum discussion. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

My instagram is @chlo_simpso and my website is I’ve done some postings on my website and I’ve done some photography that’s on my Instagram. Please reach out to me if you have any ideas for anything, like a good place to have a forum or if you’ve seen other things that work in other cities. Please message me on Instagram or email me at

Written and Interviewed by Ami Klinghoffer

Photography by Colin Tierney

This interview was conducted in person and has been edited for clarity.

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