Kenny Fisher plays with the angels; Pittsburgh jazz icon passes at 69

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Kenny Fisher didn’t talk much, but his saxophone spoke volumes to those lucky enough to have heard him play. “Fish,” as his friends called him, was one of the last links to Pittsburgh’s heyday as a jazz mecca—he knew everyone and played everywhere; the Loendi Club, the Hurricane and the old Crawford Grill. On Oct. 25, after a lengthy battle with cancer, Fisher played his last solo, he was 69.

KennyFisherQuintet1970
BACK IN THE DAY—The Kenny Fisher Quintet, from left: Jesse Kemp, pianist; Wade Powell, trumpet; Tony Fountain, drummer, percussionist; Howard Russell, bassist, deceased; and Kenny Fisher.

A renowned tenor sax player, who took his quartet to Europe, the Caribbean, and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fisher grew up in the Hill District, attending Weil Elementary School and Schenley High School. As a teen he would hang outside the Crawford Grill, listening to the greats like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Later, he honed his craft from musicians playing on the street, and by studying with seasoned players at the Musicians Club in the Lower Hill.

Long-time friend Fred Logan recalled seeing Fisher play with Max Roach at the old Diplomat Lounge in East Liberty in the early 1970s. Afterwards, he left Pittsburgh and performed with Roach’s ensemble in Washington, D.C.

“Fish was ‘folks.’ He was for real,” said Logan. “In 2000, Fish gave a birthday party for himself at the Greater Pittsburgh Coliseum and invited everyone to come—it looked like almost everyone did. The party was great. Fish was for real, and that’s the truth.”

And the man who played with style, went out in style—with a full New Orleans jazz funeral procession at Mt. Gilead Church in Wilkinsburg, Nov. 2. Psychologist and musician Nelson Harrison was among those who sang Fisher to his rest.

KennyFisher
KENNY FISHER

“We gave him a tribute fitting a great musician and a great friend,” he said. “Walls can’t stop music, it reaches beyond. I know Fish was smiling at us. He’s up there now playing with Coltrane, playing with the angels. So, it was a wonderful day.”

Joining Harrison, who played his trombetto, were tenor sax players Calvin Stenley, Carl Jackson, Lou Stellute, Walt Lowry, trumpeters Ed Skirtich and David Blane, bassist Don Wasson, keyboard player Spencer Bey, vocalist Brian Right and drummer Roger Humphries.

Other performers included Kenan Foley, Harold Lee, Tim Stevens, who played piano and sang “Amazing Grace” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”

Pitt professor, friend and fellow sax player Nathan Davis did not attend the funeral, preferring to remember Fisher “the way I saw him, to remember him as happy.”

“It’s a real blow. We were close,” said Davis. “He was one of the first guys to befriend me when I came here. He was a great player and just a beautiful guy.”

Davis and Fisher played together in the Pitt Jazz Band and later the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra, and Davis said Fisher always made time to attend his jazz seminars and help out students.

“He was a great musician, I mean he could play. And he was always helpful and open to anything I was doing,” said Davis. “He was just a quiet dignified guy. I never heard him say anything negative about anyone. This year’s seminar just won’t be the same because he was always there. He’ll be missed.”

One of those who’ll miss him is disc jockey and event producer Kevin Amos, who first met Fisher as a youth in Homewood.

“I have known Kenny since I was a teenager. I have always looked to him as one of our Jazz Messengers and I don’t think he ever got the recognition he deserved,” said Amos. “He had a sound of his own, you knew it was him playing. He was an elder statesman, an outstanding musician, a good friend and I’m going to miss him and that smile he would always have.”

Following the service, Fisher was interred at Greenwood Cemetery in O’Hara Township. A tribute to Fisher, including photos and tributes from friends will also be posted on the Pittsburgh Jazz Network website at http://jazzburgher.ning.com.

(Send comments to cmorrow @newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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