Synthesis helps honor legacy of Chuck Cooper

Aside from being the home of an historic football team that has won six Super Bowl rings, Pittsburgh is full of hidden treasurers when it comes to finding African- Americans who’ve made an indelible mark on society.

There are of course the musicians like Billy Strayhorn, Erroll Garner, Mary Lou Williams, to name a few, who have had international musical careers, and all born in Pittsburgh. There have also been outstanding educators, ministers and legal minds as well.

NEO-SOUL SMOOTH—The Joy Ike Band featuring “Peace.”

In the athletic world, however, there is an individual from Pittsburgh whose achievement changed the entire dynamic of professional basketball. The late Chuck Cooper, a star for the Duquesne Dukes, holds the dubious distinction of having been the first African-American drafted into the NBA. The Westinghouse graduate is one of the legends who have left an incredible legacy. In doing so, he blazed a trail that opened doors for the basketball greats we’ve come to know and enjoy today.

On the night of Dec. 4 the August Wilson Center was the venue for a special evening honoring Cooper.  More than 250 folks gathered to enjoy “Synthesis,” a sensational multi-genre soul and jazz concert, featuring the band of the same name which is made up of local and national jazz notables—Poogie Bell, Dwayne Dolphin, Rob Edwards, Sean Jones, Brett Williams, Juan Vasquez, with a special appearance by Grammy nominated producer, arranger Rex Rideout, all the way from Los Angeles.

The concert was one part of a weekend of recognition and celebration of Cooper’s career and his standout accomplishment, and was the creation and brainchild of  Donald Bell. Bell acknowledges that while he is neither a musician nor a promoter, but is a person with a profound passion for and interest in putting together correct musical sounds that create a unique listening experience for any concert-goer.

Bell, the chair for the consumer loan division at PNC Bank, assistant vice president and operations manager, has a serious affinity for the term “diversity.” Joined by his friend and cousin Rideout  in this  creative endeavor,  he saw the compilation of this musical family “Synthesis” as a good opportunity to do more than bring “lip” service to the term. He says “I wanted to capture and put together a group of seemingly disparate musical elements into a cohesive whole.”

He had already established the concept of a concert and group called “Synthesis,” when  invited to join in on the planning of the idea to honor Cooper with a classic. The original idea began with a conversation between Tony Rooney and key individuals at Duquesne University and PNC. “I was thrilled to do it and found it to be the perfect fit,” Bell said. “My idea with the group was to merge musical concepts that don’t usually partner; in 1950 when Celtics owner, Walter Brown,  had the guts to  move past race, and choose the best ball player; and Chuck had the courage to accept and the intestinal fortitude to endure the subsequent barbs, taunts, threats and other actions of naysayers; this was a merger that ultimately won out over the criticisms and resulted in long ranging positive results for the basketball  industry.

“I believe that musicians can do the same thing. It is no accident that the group was made up of musicians who varied in age, experience, style and genre—it was intentional and truly a representation of my belief that that true artists extend the boundaries of music and are not limited to one genre.”

The idea behind the concept as a “blend” of differences, also reflects the person of Cooper, a renaissance man before his time, whose life ended far too soon; as shown in the short video clip shown at the event, Cooper was more than an athlete. He was a father, a husband, community activist and a musician as well and reinvented himself as many times as it took to keep achieving.

After six years in the NBA, four with the Boston Celtics, and two with the St Louis Hawks, he had a car accident that prematurely ended his basketball career. He then returned to the University of Minnesota and received his master’s degree in social work. His return to Pittsburgh resulted in the acquisition of two more careers, one with the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the other in human resources at PNC.

In her opening act, Joy Ike and her band performed a special song she wrote in the memory of her brother who died of cancer last year, “Strong Man.”  She extended the song to the family of Chuck Cooper, his wife, sisters, grandchildren and a host of other family members who were on hand to witness this occasion.

International performer multi-genre Dwele—a neo-soul hybrid artist was the closing act of this tribute concert. In his creative spirit Bell saw that Dwele  added another special dimension that continued to link all elements of this event right back to what was started by the Celtics’ owner, with the courage to select the best, and Cooper, the not so reluctant pioneer who accepted the challenge to be the “first.”

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