Carl McVicker

Teacher to the Stars

Carl McVicker Sr. was the innovative and influential director of the Westinghouse High School music program that produced many renowned jazz and classical musicians. Leading the music program for over 40 years his jazz students included composer/pianist Billy Strayhorn, pianist Errol Garner, pianist Ahmad Jamal, trombonist Grover Mitchell, vocalist Dakota Staton, trumpeter Danny Conn, pianist Frank Cunimondo, guitarist Jerry Byrd, reed players Art Nance and Clarence Oden, and brass player Nelson Harrison.  Westinghouse’s music program also produced talented classical musicians.  Two of McVicker’s students, pianist Patricia Prattis Jennings and violinist Paul Ross, were the first African-American musicians to join the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  Both were hired in the 1965-66 season.  Patricia Prattis Jennings was also the first African American woman to be awarded a full contract by a major American symphony orchestra.  Birdie Nichols, who became a music teacher at Westinghouse High School, is also a prominent gospel musician.  Highly respected by his students, McVicker’s students called him "Mac”.  He was recognized for his encouraging students of all backgrounds and races to try all instruments.

"Mr. McVicker instilled self-respect in those of us who were his students, because he respected us regardless of our background," - Ahmad Jamal

Carl McVicker Sr. was born in 1904 in Pittsburgh.  A trumpet player, he was a music graduate of the Carnegie Institute.  In 1927 he was hired as an instrumental music teacher at Westinghouse High School where he became the director of bands and orchestras.  Westinghouse at that time had a student body of four hundred, of which 20 percent were African American.  It offered an integrated environment.  McVicker with the support of the superintendent of schools instituted a radical new music program that included jazz.  It drove two teachers leave the school in protest.  He started a swing band as an alternative to the concert orchestra and marching band.

"Jazz was a dirty word then.  The people in the educational system thought it was dangerous to encourage jazz bands, but it was a way of interesting kids”  Carl McVicker Sr.- Pittsburgh Magazine  1979.

At one point the roster of the Westinghouse High School Kadets swing band directed by McVicker included the future jazz artists Ahmad Jamal on piano, trombonist Grover Mitchell (who went on to direct the Count Basie Orchestra), vocalists Dakota Staton and Adam Wade, saxophonist "Buzz" Renn and his brother, trombonist Jack Renn, trumpeters Danny Conn, Pete Henderson, and Albert Aarons (who was a staff musician at MGM)  They played music ranging from "String of Pearls" to Coleman Hawkins' "Body and Soul.

McVicker also established the Westinghouse High School "Orchestra Club".  Twenty-five of the best players picked from the larger high school orchestra performed classical music concerts at Pittsburgh hotels and society functions at the homes of wealthy Pittsburghers.  Billy Strayhorn, who wanted to be a classical pianist, was the first African American member of the “Orchestra Club”.  In 1934 Strayhorn performed Edvard Greig’s Piano Concerto in A Minor, opus 16. with the Westinghouse Orchestra. 

McVicker wanted students in his program who were hard working and serious about music. Carl and music composition teacher Jane Patton Alexander insisted that the Westinghouse students learn the fundamentals.  They taught their students music theory and orchestral practice.  Their students were able to blend and manipulate music in a variety of key signatures. 

“He was quite innovative.  He had four ensembles, the Beginners Orchestra, the Junior Orchestra and the Senior Orchestra, and then he started the K-Dets(?).  It was unique, because this was the all-American Classical/Jazz band, and it was quite unusual for it to be in a high school at that time on such an organized basis.  He started the K-Dets(?) maybe around 1946, which is quite early on.  Now, of course, we have Berklee and all these institutions of higher learning that incorporate this music in their curriculum to say the least.  But I think it was very innovative, very unique on his part to start a Jazz clinical society in 1946”-Ahmad Jamal WKCR Radio Interview 1995

The music students of Westinghouse were stars at school and in Pittsburgh.  Billy Strayhorn wrote the music, lyrics, and skits for a Cole Porter-style musical called Fantastic Rhythm for Westinghouse High School that was performed in theaters across Western Pennsylvania.  Erroll Garner brought more attention to the school than the football team. Everywhere he played he drew huge crowds.

In addition to his work at Westinghouse Hiigh School, Carl McVicker Sr.  taught brass instruments as a member of the faculty at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute.  Carl McVicker died in 1994.  Trumpeter Danny Conn, a former student, played a moving blues version of the Westinghouse fight song at McVicker's funeral.  Students of Carl McVicker are honored in the Westinghouse High School Wall of Fame.

Carl McVicker’s son Carl McVicker Jr. is a bassist who performed on the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for 30 years.  He also was a member of the Johnny Costa Trio

Westinghouse High School Wall of Fame

Al Aarons -- performed with Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones and Frank Sinatra

Gerald 'Jerry' Byrd -- performed with Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff

Danny Conn - trumpet

Frank Cunimondo -- composer/keyboard

Erroll Garner -- jazz musician

Linton Garner -- performed with Billy Eckstine and Erroll Garner

Nelson Harrison, Ph.D., composer -- performed with Count Basie

Ahmad Jamal -- jazz pianist musician

Claude Jay -- gospel recording artist

"The Larells" -- all-male band, recorded "Everybody Knew"

Grover Mitchell -- conductor with Count Basie orchestra

Art Nance -- performed with Count Basie

Birdie Nichols – music educator and "Glorious Rebirth" Gospel Group

Peggy Pierce-Freeman – organist and piano teacher

Pat Prattis-Jennings -- principal keyboardist of the Pittsburgh Symphony

Paul Ross -- Pittsburgh Symphony violinist

Wyatt Ruther -- performed with Count Basie, Erroll Garner and Lena Horne

Dakota Staton -- jazz musician, performed on "Late, Late Show"

Billy Strayhorn -- composed the "A Train" worked with Duke Ellington

Adam Wade -- singer, actor and first black to host a game show

Mary Lou Williams -- piano prodigy, arranger composer for Big Bands

Carl McVicker with Westinghouse String Quartet
Westinghouse Swing Band 1943 with Ahmad Jamal
Westinghouse High School in Homewood
Westinghouse High School Wall of Fame