Joe Negri with Shep Fields' orchestra at the Stanley Theater in 1943. (Photo credit: Unknown) Joe Negri with Paul Long and Mark Damen during production of the 1963 TV program Joe Negri and Walt Harper promoting a 1960 jazz concert. (Photo credit: Unknown) Joe Negri, Susan Sager and George Ball in a scene from a 1967 TV special, Joe Negri in 2012. (Nate Guidry/Post-Gazette)

Sept. 1986: Joe Negri, a consummate jazz musician

Joe Negri has been playing guitar for so long there’s hardly a time he wasn’t.

For a few minutes back in the 1940s, he had a notion of becoming a sports announcer, hoping to be legendary in the mold of his childhood idols, Pirates broadcasters Bob Prince and Rosey Roswell. As with most kids who love baseball, he knew he was never going to play professionally but figured he could be involved in sports on another level.

But that notion went away — gone as quickly as he learned to play “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

Mr. Negri, who many will recognize as the affable “Handyman Negri” on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” developed his skills at 16, playing acoustic rhythm guitar for the famous Shep Fields Orchestra. The band crisscrossed the country playing tunes such as “Ritual Fire Dance” and “Jersey Bounce” and featured saxophonist Serge Chaloff, who later performed with Woody Herman’s Second Herd.

In the early 1950s, he debuted the Joe Negri Trio on Pittsburgh’s pioneer TV station WDTV as part of the “Buzz ‘N’ Bill Show.” The trio included Dom Trimarkie on accordion and Lou Mauro on drums.

After “Buzz ‘N’ Bill” ended, Mr. Negri moved to “The John Reed King Show,” a variety show. He led another trio in that venture, teaming with drummer Chuck Spadifore and bassist Jimmy DeJulio.

In the early ’60s, Mr. Negri became music director of WTAE-TV’s live programs, a position he held for more than 20 years. It was around this time he entered the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, joining Fred Rogers’ cast of characters.

“Joe is not only the best Royal Handyman in the neighborhood, he is a consummate jazz musician who delights us all,” said the late Fred Rogers in a 2003 Post-Gazette article.

In 1990, Mr. Negri and drummer H.B. Bennett started the successful “Jazz for Juniors” program — a series of performances in schools and community centers. And in 1999, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

But to hear him tell it, anyone can do what he does with a little practice and discipline.

Maybe.

(Top photo: Negri, Nathan Davis and Danny Conn prepare for a jazz concert in 1986.)

Nate Guidry

 

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