Jazz History for Sale in Hill District

Article excerpt

As redevelopment bubbles up around the Hill District, from a new hockey arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins to the $70 million Bedford Hill housing development, one building on Wylie Avenue evokes wistful memories and hopes for the future.

In its heyday from the 1940s through the '60s, the Crawford Grill played host to some of the nation's top jazz performers, including Art Blakey, Mary Lou Williams, Chet Baker and John Coltrane.

The Young Preservationists Association last month declared the Crawford Grill one of its "Top Ten Best Preservation Opportunities in the Pittsburgh Area," in hopes of attracting a buyer who would develop the space with respect for its role in Pittsburgh's history.

But finding any buyer has so far proven to be a challenge, owner William "Buzzy" Robinson and his lawyer said in an interview last week held in the building owned by his family since 1943. The asking price for the three-story building and adjacent lots at Elmore Street is $300,000.

"The community and developers are crying out for the Crawford Grill to come back," attorney Joseph Williams III said. "We're not short on ideas. We're short on people who want to take a risk on the community."

Williams said he has received at least 45 calls and visits in the past year from interested parties -- including one holding a sack of cash for a would-be down payment -- but no deals have been made.

These days, Robinson, 75, lives mostly in New York. Perched on a wooden stool against the 50-foot bar, he recalled a boyhood when the Crawford Grill was "just a local bar" run by his father in partnership with legendary Pittsburgh entrepreneur Gus Greenlee.

Greenlee owned the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team from 1931 to 1939. He helped to organize the National Negro League, built the nation's first black-owned major league baseball field, managed a stable of boxers and, it is widely agreed, directed a numbers- running operation in the days before state lotteries.

After Greenlee's death in 1952, Robinson said he began suggesting acts to his father that his musician friends were talking about. Over the years, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus and Cannonball Adderly were among the internationally known performers who took to the elevated tile bandstand, drawing patrons of all races. …