Filed Under Music

Crawford Grill

A Multicultural Haven for Jazz and Community

A key remnant of Pittsburgh’s 20th century musical culture, Crawford Grill was a landmark of Black entrepreneurship, inclusive atmosphere, and legendary jazz music.

As one approached Crawford Grill No. 2, the bustling sounds of the evening crowd could be heard from the curb of Wylie Avenue. Laughter filled the night air, mingling with the hum of loud chatter and the backdrop of jazz music. Upon entering through the front door, patrons were immediately greeted with warm smiles from familiar faces and the enticing aroma of Crawford’s famous chicken wings. For many, Crawford Grill No. 2 was more than just a bar—it was a second home, a platform for both local and nationally-renowned musicians, a haven for those seeking desegregation and equality, and a place where people felt safe and empowered.

The original Grill was founded by Gus Greenlee, a local Pittsburgh businessman and owner of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, the local Negro league baseball team. The Grill quickly gained a reputation for attracting top-notch music acts while maintaining a welcoming atmosphere for both locals and visitors. It became a well-known venue for legendary musicians like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzie Gillespie, and Miles Davis, who graced the patrons with their mesmerizing melodies. Moreover, Crawford Grill played a crucial role in nurturing local talents and elevating Pittsburgh as a thriving center of jazz culture. Artists like Walt Harper found their beginnings and built their careers in the city. Harper's performances at Crawford Grill significantly boosted both the venue's popularity and his own recognition, even earning him second place in the Pittsburgh Courier "favorite combo" poll, right behind Louis Armstrong.

Crawford Grill No. 2 came into existence in 1943 during the peak success of its predecessor. Gus Greenlee, with the help of his business partner Joseph Robinson, expanded his restaurant business to multiple locations. Grill No. 2 also attracted esteemed customers, including the John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Sinatra, and Muhammad Ali, among others. Similar to Grill No. 1, it embraced a diverse clientele, welcoming people of all races and genders at a time when racial violence and segregation were prevalent across much of the United States. Joseph Robinson, later succeeded by his son William “Buzzy” Robinson, managed Crawford Grill No. 2 as a haven for music and good food until its closure nearly 60 years later.

For many, Crawford Grill No. 2 was more than just a bar, it was a second home.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Greenlee attempted to expand further, opening two more Crawford Grill locations, but they only lasted a short time. Unfortunately, a fire in 1951 forced Crawford Grill No. 1 to close permanently. Reopening the restaurant proved difficult, and Greenlee passed away one year later in 1952, leaving Grill No. 1 shuttered. Amidst these changes, Crawford Grill No. 2 remained the torchbearer of Crawford Grill's influence on Pittsburgh's music and restaurant scene.

In the 1960s, changes to the Hill and the larger culture presented challenges to Crawford Grill's continued success  First, urban redevelopment in the 1950s and the construction of the Civic Arena in 1960 contributed to the deterioration of the Hill District community, displacing more than 8,000 residents and severing friendships, community support systems, and even aspects of cultural identity. Second, the riots of 1968 following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., damaged the Hill District's reputation among White patrons; in its heyday, 80 percent of the club's audience had been White. Finally, the rise of rock and roll and other forms of popular music led to a decline in the audience for jazz by the late 1960s. While the club remained a mecca for jazz lovers and Hill residents, it could not maintain the booming business of its heyday. A 1975 Post-Gazette article described Joe Robinson, surveying a sparsely-occupied Crawford Grill No. 2 dining room and lamenting, "Used to be you couldn't find a place to sit during lunch hour. Look now—who's here?"

These challenges ultimately proved insurmountable. With declining interest from outside patrons and a failing urban infrastructure around it, Crawford Grill No. 2 closed its doors for the final time in 2003. It was listed for sale in 2006 and has remained vacant since, serving as a poignant reminder of Pittsburgh's role in America's jazz scene and the Hill District's significant contribution to the diverse and vibrant culture of 20th-century Pittsburgh.

Images

Crawford Grill No. 2 facade, 1975. While urban redevelopment and neighborhood decline diminished the Crawford Grill's audience, it remained a center for jazz culture through the 1970s and beyond. Visible in this image are posters advertising performances by the Grant Green Quintet and organist Charlie Earland. Source:

McBride Sign Company Photographs, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center.

Date: 1975
Crawford Grill Ad, 1957 A 1957 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette advertisement for a performance by Miles Davis, just one of the jazz legends often featured at the Crawford Grill. Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Date: August 26, 1957
Exterior of original Crawford Grill, 1956 Wylie Avenue near Fullerton Street looking west toward downtown Pittsburgh. The view includes the original location of the Crawford Grill. The sidewalk in front of the Crawford Grill has been blocked off with wooden panels. Source: Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1892-1981, MSP 285, Library and Archives Division, Senator John Heinz History Center Creator: John R. Shrader Date: 1956
Crawford Grill No. 2 interior A postcard view of the interior of the newly-renovated Crawford Grill. A major renovation in 1953 featured new painted wall murals, new booths, modernized bar, and an improved stage for live music. Creator: Vinard Studio, Pittsburgh Date: 1953
Crawford Grill No. 2 building The site of Crawford Grill No. 2 as it appears today Source: Image via Flickr by user Joseph Date: 2012
Gus Greenlee Obituary The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, along with much of the Hill District, mourned the death of Gus Greenlee in 1952. He was considered a pioneer and a staple within the nightlife and sportsbook community of Pittsburgh. Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Date: July 8, 1952
Crawford Grill No. 2 exterior The Crawford Grill No. 2's attractive entranceway and large, vibrant neons. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1942-1970
Crawford Grill Crowd Shown is a packed house at Crawford Grill No. 2. A diverse crowd listents intently to some of Crawford Grill's talented jazz musicians while enjoying drinks and good company. Source: Charles "Teenie" Harris Collection, Carnegie Museum of Art Creator: Charles "Teenie" Harris Date: c. 1960-1975
Untitled Crawford Grill No. 2, in its current form, stands alone and shuttered. The adjacent lots are empty and overgrown. Creator: Jeff Slack, Time and Place LLC

Location

2141 Wylie Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Metadata

Darren Frehulfer, “Crawford Grill,” Hill District Digital History, accessed May 29, 2024, https://hillhistory.org/items/show/3.