Maggie Johnson is the founder/director of JAZZSPACE and is a trained vocalist.
You guessed it: this place is named after famous Pittsburghers Gene Kelly and Billy Strayhorn. It sits in the heart of East Liberty, and many attribute to it an important role in helping transform this community into the diverse, attractive, economically viable neighborhood it has become in recent years. The tagline on its website now reads “Community Performing Arts Center” but like so many old theaters around Pittsburgh, it hasn’t always been that way. The building itself started out in 1914 as a movie house called the Regent Theater – complete with live organ. Over the century, with the rise and tide of social interests and economic fluctuations, the Regent closed and opened several times. Like some other Pittsburgh neighborhoods in the 50s and 60s, East Liberty was the victim of “urban redevelopment” initiatives and the Regent did not escape the negative results. By the 1990s however, the arts community had rallied around the beloved theater and it was reopened as the Kelly-Strayhorn, to honor those great artists and signify the intention to focus on presenting community-based programs and supporting local artists. The theater struggled for a few years to produce consistently successful programming under this new identity, but by the mid-2000s had rebranded itself and the organization was taking a more proactive role in shaping the future of East Liberty. Today, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater (KST) incorporates two separate venues. The primary space is the main theater building at 5941 Penn Avenue that plays host to a myriad selection of dance, music, film and theater performances from local and regional companies as well as nationally recognized artists. In 2007 began the annual Suite Life: A Birthday Bash for Billy Strayhorn. This popular tribute to one of its namesakes always features Pittsburgh’s hottest jazz acts, including Roger Humphries RH Factor and the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra with Sean Jones. Dance, in particular modern and contemporary dance, is also a staple of the Kelly-Strayhorn’s event schedule. Its annual newMoves Contemporary Dance Festival has earned a reputation for presenting the cutting edge work of rising stars, many of which are now well known in the dance world. In addition, choreographers and dance companies have traveled from around the world to perform on this stage. The second space, located just a few blocks northwest of the main building on Penn Avenue, is called KST’s Alloy Studios. This venue contains two large dance studios, suitable for public performances, workshops, rehearsals and special events. It is also home to the KST artist residency and education programs. The purpose of the artist residency programs is to support local and emerging artists who create and present new work that engages the diversity of residents throughout Pittsburgh’s East End. Both the Theater and the Alloy Studios are available to rent and many self-producing artists and organizations have taken advantage of its relative affordability and prime location.
The Kaufmann Center is a large, multipurpose event space situated in the heart of one of Pittsburgh’s most famous neighborhoods, The Hill District. It sits near the sites of the once prolific but now dormant or non-existent Crawford Grill and Hurricane Club, popular jazz clubs through the majority of the twentieth century that frequently saw the influx of America’s most famous jazz legends. The Kaufmann Center now houses the Elsie H. Hillman Auditorium, was first built in 1928 and completely renovated in 2010. The history of the Hill District is well known, if not always well appreciated. It’s heyday as a vibrant, truly multicultural, and prosperous neighborhood with strong links to Pittsburgh’s downtown business district occurred through the 1950s. However, this golden era gave way to decline in the latter half of the century when city planners effectively cut off the neighborhood from its financial and social bloodlines. Much of the area was razed to make room for the Civic Arena, which is now also a distant memory. Honoring the site’s history and the primarily African-American community in which it now lives, a significant amount of programming in the Elsie Hillman Auditorium is focused on jazz. Big names such as George Benson and Jonathan Butler have come through, mostly to serve Hill House Association fundraisers. Community rentals are strongly encouraged and many local musicians and artists take advantage of the relatively affordable opportunity to present their own programs and workshops in the space. With a capacity of up to 350, easy access to a beautiful courtyard space, a flexible open floor plan, conference rooms, and a catering kitchen the Kaufmann Center has welcomed presentations of all shapes and sizes. Whether music, dance, theater, literature, or film; professional, academic, or amateur; large or small, it is a hidden gem of event spaces in Pittsburgh.