Joe Negri is an honored virtuoso jazz guitarist, song writer, recording artist, music educator and internationally known television performer. He has entertained millions of children and adults as a musician and actor on Pittsburgh television and on the PBS Network. Negri was “Handyman Joe” for 35 years on the third longest running PBS series Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. As a teenager Joe toured the U.S. as a featured guitar soloist with the Shep Fields swing band. Negri along with Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrel and others was part of the second wave of jazz guitarists who came into prominence in the post World War II era. Joe has performed with Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, Branford and Ellis Marsalis, and Yo Yo Ma. He appears frequently with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Pop series conducted by Marvin Hamlish. Joe Negri continues to perform regularly in the Pittsburgh area and nationally. In 2011 he performed with Michael Feinstein and Wynton Marsallis at the Newport Jazz Festival.
An adjunct professor at all three of Pittsburgh’s major music schools Joe Negri teaches jazz guitar at Duquesne University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of Pittsburgh. His guitar instruction book “A Common Sense Approach to Improvisation for Guitar” was published by Mel Bay Publications in 2002. In 1999, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust honored him with a Creative Achievement Award. Duquesne University presented Joe with an Honorary Doctorate in Music in 2005. Vintage Guitar Magazine profiled Negri with in-depth story by music historian Rich Kienzle in 2010.
Negri has released 5 CDs recordings of his original music and jazz classics. His recordings are Mass of Hope (1997), Afternoon in Rio on the Jazz MCG label (1998), Guitars for Christmas (2003), Uptown Elegance (2004), and the Noteworthy label release Dream Dancing (2010). In the 1950s Joe recorded with the Three Suns and appears on two of their releases “The Three Suns 1949-1956” and “The Three Suns 1949-1953 Vol 2” that were issued in 1994-1995. Negri appears on the PSO's Sony Music “Cinema Serenade” 1997 release with Itzhag Pearlman that was conducted by John Williams. Nancy Wilson’s 2004 release “R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal)” on the Manchester Craftsmen Guild label features Negri on guitar. Joe also appears on Michael Feinstein’s 2010 release “Fly Me to the Moon”. Negri has also recorded with Eileen Farrell, Marlene Ver Planck, Lonnis McGlohon, Lyndia Jamison, Kim Costanza, and Kenny Karsh. Working with writer Bob McCully Negri has written and produced several musical reviews. His composition "The Crossing" was premiered by the River City Brass Band. His "Mass of Hope" for choir and jazz has been performed at churches and concerts throughout the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
"Joe is not only the best royal handyman in the neighborhood; he's a consummate jazz musician who delights us all." -Fred Rogers
“A few years ago I was performing with the Pittsburgh Symphony, under the direction of Marvin Hamlisch and found myself drawn to the exquisite sound that emanated from the guitar player, Joe Negri. Joe's fluid and spontaneous ability to perfectly accompany and enhance every song I was singing made me feel as happy as I've ever been on a concert stage. We resolved to one day work together, and this recording is the fulfillment of our pledge. We all couldn't have had a better time, and the two days of recording were the smoothest I've ever experienced in a studio”.- Michael Feinstein
Mt. Washington Beginnings
Joseph Harold Negri was born in Pittsburgh in 1926 the son of Italian immigrants. His father Mike came from Calabria to America at age 16, became a brick layer and married Rose Viggiano. Mike’s avocation was music. He played Dixieland on the banjo and fiddle. Living on Mt. Washington the Negri family exposed their children to Italian music and American pop and jazz teaching them to sing a new song every week. Mike taught Joe to play the ukulele and sing at age three. Joe made his first radio appearance at three and appeared in 1930 on KDKA radio’s "Uncle Henry's Radio Rascals" program at age 4. Singing with his ukulele he appeared in theatrical and stage productions throughout the tri-state area and was named one of Pittsburgh's “Stars of Tomorrow.” In 1931 Gene Kelly and Fred Kelly, who had heard about Joe from his tap dance teacher, came to the Negri house and hired Joe and his younger brother Bobby to perform at their dance studio. Mike bought Joe a guitar and taught him some chords so that he to sing and play at the Kellys' studios. Mike then formed "Joe Negri and the Rhythm Boys" a group that featured Joe’s brother Bobby on piano and his cousin Harold "Mutsy" Amato. They performed at schools, amateur shows, and for Italian organizations.
When Joe’s voice changed he stopped performing as a singer and the Rhythm Boys disbanded. Joe turned his attention to mastering the guitar. He studied for five years with Vic Lawrence at his studio located in Volkwein’s downtown Liberty Avenue music store. Teaching himself songs from the cutting-edge jazz recordings of Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and Les Paul, Joe quickly mastered jazz guitar by age 13. With the help of his father’s friend, accordion player Dom Trimarkie, Joe began playing at the Roosevelt and William Penn hotels and other places. On turning 16 he joined the Pittsburgh Musicians' Union and played his first professional job with an orchestra at the University Club that same night.
Touring with Shep Fields and the Army
Frank Andrini, a Pittsburgh guitarist who had mentored young Joe Negri, recommended Joe to nationally known orchestra leader Shep Fields in March of 1943. Fields, who was on tour performing in Pittsburgh, had an opening for a guitarist and hired Joe as a featured soloist. Joe returned to Pittsburgh with the Fields band in 1944 playing the Stanley Theatre. Post-Gazette entertainment critic Harold V. Cohen wrote, "Young Joe Negri, a Pittsburgh lad, easily demonstrates why he is right up there with the wizards of the electric guitar." Joe’s touring days ended later in 1944 went Uncle Sam sent him a draft notice. He shipped out to Germany 1945 and was later assigned to an Army dance band in Fort Lee, Va where he learned bebop from trumpter Coni Condoli. Woody Herman offered Joe a job in his band after his Army discharge, but Joe turned him down. Having been away from home as a musician and a soldier since age 16 Negri wanted to return to Pittsburgh.
Joy Negri Trio and Carnegie Tech
Returning to Pittsburgh in 1946 Joe formed the Joe Negri Trio with his pianist brother Bobby and bassist John Vance. They played the popular Pittsburgh clubs such as the Midway Lounge, Mercer's and the Hollywood Showbar. They also backed up featured artists who came through Pittsburgh was as Bobby Hackett, Charlie Shavers and Roy Eldridge. Joe met pianist Johnny Costa in 1950. Costa convinced Joe to enroll in music school using his G.I. Bill grant to study composition at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). Joe had his first formal training in music theory studying harmony and counterpoint. While in college Joe continued to appear in clubs and concerts. Appearing at Conneaut Lake in 1953 he met Joni Serafini whom he married in 1954.
Negri left Carnegie Tech in 1954 after 2 1/2 years of study to become a pioneer in early Pittsburgh television. In 1954 he became the leader of the jazz trio on the “Buzz 'N' Bill Show" that aired 5 days a week on WDTV-TV (now KDKA). A variety program it starred the song and dance men Buzz Aston and Bill Hinds. Johnny Costa and Joe Negri also performed on the 1954 TV Series, 67 Melody Lane, hosted by organist Ken Griffin.
In 1958 Negri took his wife and his infant daughters Lisa and Laurie to New York to explore a career as a studio musician. Talking with other guitarists he concluded that studio work and club dates would leave little time for his family. He returned to Pittsburgh to continue his work in television, playing club and party dates, and writing commercial jingles with ex-"Buzz 'N Bill" writer Sy Bloom. Joe appeared on Pirate baseball broadcast playing live Iron City Beer commercials. Ketchum Advertising commissioned Negri and a writer Sy Bloom to write the Pirates 1960 World Series fight song “Beat ‘Em Bucs!” that was recorded by Bennie Banack on Robbee Records. After the "Buzz 'N' Bill Show" stopped production, Negri in 1961 became the leader of a jazz trio of Chuck Spadifore and bassist Jimmy DeJulio on the KDKA-TV variety music talk program "The John Reed King Show". The King show, which featured nationally known celebrities, was syndicated in several cities on the Group W network and ran until 1965.
Joe began his twenty year career at WTAE-TV around 1965 when he was hired to lead a trio on the "Hank Stohl Show", a zany morning program for adults with announcer-newscaster Nick Perry. Promoted to music director of channel 4 he played on the popular kids shows "Ricki and Copper" and Paul Shannon's "Adventure Time." He created and hosted documentaries on the guitar and the blues and was a host on WTAE's morning show AM Pittsburgh. In 1971 he hosted "Joe Negri's High School Talent Scene" and was later was the host of a revived "Adventure Time" show.
Mister Roger's Neighborhood
Joe Negri first worked with Fred Rogers at WTAE in 1965 when Fred hosted a 15-minute children's program. The show lasted only six months as Rogers could not stand to do commercials for violent toys like G.I. Joe. Two years later Rogers offered Negri a role on his new WQED show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood". Joe played two roles on the show. As Fred’s real life neighbor Negri ran the neighborhood music store where he taught Mr. Rogers about different types of instruments. Visiting musicians such as Wynton Marsallis, Eric Kloss, and Yo-Yo Mo stopped in the music store to play music with Negri and pianist Johnny Costa. In the Neighborhood of Make Believe segment of the show Joe was King Friday’s fix-it man Handyman Negri. He gave advice to the neighbors of the land of Make Believe. Joe appeared on over 300 episodes of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood from 1965 to 2003.
Upon leaving WTAE in the 1980’s Joe focused his attention on teaching. He became a guitar instructor at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon. In 1973 he helped Duquesne University launch its guitar program. In 1990 Negri created the Jazz for Juniors program to introduce children to jazz. Jazz for Juniors was held at the Balcony club in Shadyside, moved to Oakland Holiday Inn and starting in 1993 was held weekly at the Galleria in Mt. Lebanon until 1998. Joe and his trio played jazz for the children and let them sing with the band. As a children’s television performer, guitarist, and music educator Joe Negri has introduced generations of children and guitarists to the jazz. His many talented guitar students will carry on the jazz tradition.