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Etta Cox

JS: Today I have the pleasure of welcoming a woman who has blessed my life and entertained me and ministered to me many times. And that’s Etta Cox. Etta, welcome to the Urban Heroes program.

EC: Well, thank you so much.

JS: Well, it’s good to talk with you. So, as we’ve started off in all of our interviews, we’ll be transcribing this so people can read it. And also people will be listening. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do and things like that.

EC: I think people in Pittsburgh primarily know me as a jazz vocalist. But they may not know I’m a Christian first, and have been for many years. I’m not from Pittsburgh. I’m from St. Joseph’s, Missouri. And my dad was a deacon in the Baptist church, for many, many years. And, for one reason or another, my parents decided that they wanted to send me to Catholic school. So I went to Catholic school from 7th grade through high school, and graduated from a Catholic college called Mt. St. Scholastica Women’s College, with Benedictine nuns. But, I stayed a Baptist.

JS: So now, St. Josephs, and I love the way you say Missouri; I can tell you’re a native. How did you get to Pittsburgh?

EC: An ex-husband was transferred. After graduating from college, I got married and he was transferred from St. Louis, where we were living, to Pittsburgh. And when he said, “We’re going to Pittsburgh.” I said, “Pitt-what, Pitt-where, Pitt-who?” I had no idea what it was all about. And the people down there were like, it’s all smoky and dirty and they had known about it many years before. I was pleasantly surprised when I got here, although it was bitter cold, and a little gloomy; didn’t see the blue skies that we were used to back in Missouri very often. But after we separated and eventually divorced, I liked Pittsburgh, because it was close to New York, which was my goal: I always wanted to go to New York and be on Broadway. Or something close to it. So I stayed. And the people were very, very nice to me here.

JS: And what are you doing now?

EC: Well, I teach at CAPA High School; Creative and Performing Arts High School in downtown. And I’m still, as they say, gigging, doing jazz performances and will be doing something with the Pittsburgh ballet next year. There’s not a lot of jazz places around town, so you always have to, as my mother said, keep that day job.

JS: Now let’s go back. Your dad’s a deacon, Baptist. Talk to us about what growing up was like in St. Joseph.

EC: Well, my sister and I, we started piano, she started piano when she was like 4; she played by ear. And she was the one that started me singing. She went to school, she is 3.5 years older, and so when she would come home, she would play all the songs that she learned at school, and she would teach them to me. And she taught me how to write, in cursive writing and everything, and she said, “I want you to know these things, because when you get to school, they’re going to know you’re my sister, and I don’t want them to think you’re dumb.” So that’s why she did it! It wasn’t out of the goodness of her heart.

JS: It wasn’t quite just for your benefit, it was also for her reputation.

EC: Right! So, at eight, we would always go to church, and I would always see my parents and my grandmother receive communion. And in those days it was just grape juice and some crackers. And I would bring my own on Sunday, to have my own, because I couldn’t receive theirs. And decided, I accepted the Lord, and wanted to be baptized. And I wanted my sister to do it with me. So she was 12, we both got baptized at the same time. My dad was rather strict. If it was raining and storming, you didn’t play. We all sat down every Sunday to have a family meal together. It was very, very traditional, African-American, not wealthy parents. My mother was domestic, and then she later went into nutrition at the state mental hospital. And my dad was a bartender.

JS: So your sister takes you to school, and you’re fairly well prepared in reading and writing and what have you. Where does your interest in music, where does it go from there? How is it promoted in school?

EC: Well, I started singing at the age of six. I had started taking piano lessons. And there was one lady in town who gave all of the African-American kids piano lessons. Everybody, the young kids took piano lessons. So she would have a recital every year, maybe 25-30 kids. And the very first time I played in front of anyone, I played and sang. And I sat down and sang a song. And I just thought that was the coolest thing in the world. And I was always singing around the house. So when I turned 8, I had a very high, operatic voice. She gave me a song called Hark, Hark, the Lark. And I learned it and my sister accompanied me.

And I remember at the rehearsal, I looked and standing there looking out at the people, at rehearsal, I got very nervous and ran off the stage, because I was used to sitting down and singing, not standing up in front of people and singing. So this went on for a while, I couldn’t stand up on stage. I’d run off the stage for Easter; they never heard it, I was gone. And I sang and sat with my sister at different churches until I was 12, holding on to the piano; until I got the nerve to stand up and sing in front of people again. But the music, there was always music in my home. My grandmother played the piano, and she played Gospel music, and there was always singing, and we would always sit around and sing. And then my sister started playing for a while. There was always music there.

JS: So at 12 you start standing up on your own. Okay. Where does it go from there? You don’t seem to have any problem today.

EC: Ohhh, you’d be surprised. I guess going into the Catholic School in 7th grade, and every Saturday, we would learn Gregorian chant. And my father knew nothing about the Catholic religion. They just sent me there, and I told them that every day we go to this thing called “Mass.” And the kids go up and the priest gives them something. And my dad said, do what they do. So that’s what I did. So I started singing a lot, doing the 40 hours, and I just felt so close to God, because everything seemed so sacred and beautiful. And that’s when I really started to branch out, and just really started to sing.

JS: Yes.

EC: They were twins. Her brother was Saint Benedict, so they were called the twin colleges. And there is Saint Benedict’s also. Well, while I was in high school, I went to Bishop LeBlond High School. They would come up and recruit. And so, I was singing a lot in high school, in the choirs and things like that. And my dad went around to all of his friends, because being a bartender, he had a lot of wealthy friends at this club where he used to work, and I got all kinds of scholarships. So I got a free ride, except for $250; just college, to The Mount. And it was a very sobering experience.

The college I went to was only 40 miles from my home, but I stayed on campus for all 4 years, because I wanted that experience. So I started singing there. I studied all classical music. And also, in high school, I had my own girl group called The Gems. That was a time when Motown started, and we had never heard that much black music before. You had to hear it on a radio station that would come on at midnight or something. And so Motown was a really big deal. The Marvelettes, and The Supremes. So I had my own girl group called The Gems. So we had pictures taken, and I got a taste of that music.

But, I was part of Fort Nightly, my sister and I were both in Fort Nightly; it was sort of an elite musical organization. And we were the only African-Americans that were ever in it. We had to audition to get in, and it was like a big deal back then. And I’m talking in the 60’s, there were a lot of firsts. I was the first black Miss St. Joe. And I went to the Miss Missouri Pageant in ’68/’69. And a lot of prejudiced segregation; a lot of that was at St. Joe growing up. But my parents never said that we couldn’t do anything because of our color. There was a rejection; I lost some things that I deserved, but because of who I was, or what I was, you know, I didn’t get it. But I never stopped, I just kept on going. And I had a really great support from my family.

JS: Were there more opportunities here? What did you find with the transition?

EC: I had been singing in St. Louis. I had been at a place called Marty’s. And I taught school for a little bit before we moved here, because I hadn’t been out of college long before we moved [to Pittsburgh]. But I knew that I didn’t want to teach again. I taught in the inner-city, and it was very, very difficult, coming from a small town and taking away guns and knives from kids in the inner-city. And I thought, I don’t really want to teach when I get to Pittsburgh; I want to sing. So, my husband got here before I did, and he found a band. And he called me and he said, “I found this band.” And I said, “Great!” And he said, “They play jazz.” And I went, “Jazz. I don’t sing jazz.” I was very indignant about jazz. So it was Al Dowe’s band.

JS: Oh yeah. Brother Al. Good guy.

EC: Yep! So when I got here, he had told Al that my wife is coming out, and she’s a singer, she’s a singer. And he wasn’t looking for a singer. But I met Al, he barely spoke, typical musician. And he said, “I’ll let you sing.” And when all the people were gone, I came up and I sang Misty. I didn’t really know how to use a microphone in a club. I was signing these high notes and blowing everyone’s eardrums out. But, he saw me, I was doing a show called Jacque Brel Alive and Well and Living in Paris at the Archer Playhouse in South Hills with Tom Thomas. Two friends auditioned for that and then I started getting more things in the theater world.

And I got my equity card, and I was over at Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera for six years, at Heinz Hall, when they were still at Heinz Hall. And I also worked for Rockwell International, because I needed a day job. After the separation, I didn’t have the income, so I worked at Rockwell for five years. And, I had told Mr. Rockwell, that before I came there, I had done a summer a Civic Light Opera, and he said, “Oh! I’m on the board!” And I said, “Well I auditioned this year and I made it.” And he said, “Well, what do you do here?” And I said, “Well, I wasn’t even a secretary, I’m a relief receptionist.” And he said, “Well, go ahead. We’ll let you off for three months in the summer so that you can sing and dance.” And they did. And I did that for almost every year I was at Rockwell, except for 1977.

JS: Now Rockwell. Were they out here in Point Breeze?

EC: It was downtown in the US Steel Building. They had five floors down there.

JS: I had a fraternity brother that was in there. But that’s right, he was with another company and then they merged. That’s why he was out here. But at any rate, so now you’re starting to live some of your dream, as far as music?

EC: Sort of, kind of. I was singing in a jazz band, and I was doing musical theater. I also did some straight theater. But then my friend Tom Thomas, that I had done [a musical] with as a director; he had moved to New York. And he called me and said they were doing this show in New York called I Love My Wife, and they were turning it from an all-white musical into a black musical, and why don’t you come over and audition. And I said, okay.

So I went up and I auditioned, about six times, and I got in. And they said, you need to be here in two weeks. But at this time I was working at Rockwell, and I told Mr. Rockwell, and he said, you know what, we’ll give you a leave of absence for three months. By June you’ll know whether or not you want to stay or not. I said, okay. So unfortunately, this show closed after 8 weeks. I couldn’t even collect unemployment. But I kept my apartment here in Pittsburgh. And I said, I’m going to stay, so I stayed in New York. It paid off. I did a couple more Broadway shows. I always kept my apartment in Pittsburgh though. So when I needed to get away from it all. I worked for Cartier, Estee Lauder, I had great secretarial skills, so I had an easy time getting jobs, so I didn’t have to be a waitress or anything like that, when I was there.

JS: Well, I know I get some feedback when I teach certain things. I can only imagine being a jazz singer, being in theater, and being a woman of faith; did people kind of look at you with curiosity or oppose what you were doing? How did faith and your musical walk work out?

EC: The entire time that I have been in Pittsburgh. I was always in search of a church home, because that was what I was used to and accustomed to. And I was a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church for nine years. And I always wanted to go to their prayer meeting or women’s Bible study. And I remember going to what was called an old fashioned prayer meeting. It was on Wednesdays, and I think the youngest person there was about 70, and I was in my 30’s at the time. And I went in, and they said, oh we’re so glad to have you honey. And they said, “What do you do?” And I said, “Well, I’m a jazz singer.” And they looked at me, and they said, “Jazz!” And they put a chair in the middle of the floor and put me in it, and made a circle around me, and they said they were going to pray the jazz out of me.

Well, I was so, oh my gosh. I later found out that wasn’t a prayer meeting I shouldn’t have gone to. I should have gone to another one. So I was at Ebenezer for nine years and I left Ebenezer and went to Mt. Ararat. And I was there for nine years. And when the church kind of split in two, I said I’m staying with the church, and not going to go with the man. And that’s what I did. And I loved Mt. Ararat.

Then, I visited Covenant, and I remember going there at Christmas-time. I took my dad because he was visiting for Christmas. And they had a 100-voice choir at this thing. And I said to my daddy, “Oh, daddy, I’d love to sing at a choir like that." And he said, “ Why don’t you come here?” And I said, “Well, I can’t church hop.” But I do it every nine years, you know. So, every Sunday, I would go to Covenant’s 8:00 service, and then I would go to the 10:00 service and Mt. Ararat. I did that for a year, and then finally I decided that I wanted to join Covenant.

JS: That’s where I met you.

EC: Yep.

JS: And now you’re part of ACAC?

EC: Everything I’ve done, I believe the Lord has taken me there without me thinking about it. Because Al was going through challenges, and he said, I need a church. And I said, why don’t you go to ACAC on the North Side? And he asked if that was a good church. And I said, “I don’t know I’ve never been there!”

JS: Ha!

EC: And he said, why are you sending me there? And I said, well I just hear it’s a good church. And so he went a few times, and said, “Wow, that’s a great church, you should go there.” And I said, “No, I’m not church hopping.”

JS: Yeah, it’s not nine years yet! I’m not due.

EC: I can’t make my move just yet. So, I started doing the same thing again. I started visiting ACAC. And then my dad, who was suffering from dementia – we didn’t know it at the time – came to live with me. We were getting up early every Sunday and making it down to Covenant. And it just got to be hard, and I said let’s go over here. And he said, “Are we going to go to the black church?” It’s not black, white, or whatever. Oh cool, he said. So we started going there, and he started liking it. And, before you know it, we were there.

JS: Yeah. ACAC grows on you. When I left Covenant, it was the first place I went. We were going to go look at other churches, but once I saw it, I said, it has everything I look for. It’s cross-cultural, plus nobody knew me! The circumstances surrounding my departure were some that I didn’t want anybody asking me, what are you doing there? And it was a totally different world with different people. Now I see lots of folks I knew and know.

EC: Yeah, me too.

JS: But it was different back in 2001. Apart from some people looking critically at what you’re doing, for the most part you didn’t have any trouble merging your faith and your music?

EC: No, because I believed that being raised the way that I was, I’ve always put it out there. I’ve always been in a church. I’ve always read my daily Word and My Daily Bread that my mother gave me. She said that I need to read this every day. Always trying to have that communication. And I remember living in New York, there was a time when cocaine was just all over the place, and going to a recording session. And they asked me to record, and I said, yeah. And the girl they had been using couldn’t make it or something. So, they said – this sounds silly now – we’re going to take a coke break, and I’m thinking cocacola. But they had a mound of cocaine there, with the mirrors. And they said, come on Etta, have some. And I said, no, I don’t do drugs. And they said, well you’ve been sniffing all night. And I said, well I have a little bit of a cold, you know, but that was it.

And then they paid me my money, but I saw the girl whose place I had taken who was totally strung out. I was in another show, and I won’t say her name because she’s very famous right now, but she was always late for rehearsals, and so I had to go to the set, because I was her understudy. I ended up finishing the show out. And she said, oh, I want to take you to celebrate, and this is your first time on a Broadway stage, and all excited. So, she took me to dinner, and after dinner, she had a vile full of cocaine, and she said, “Here, have some.” And I said, “I don’t do drugs.” And she said, “You’ve never tried any drugs?” I said no. And she said, “Well never let it be known that I was the one that started you on the road to drugs.” And I refused.

And I would call my dad when I was between shows, and I would say, daddy, give me some scripture, because it’s really hard up here. And he said, read Matthew 6 and Romans 8. And I would read that knowing that something good was going to be coming. The Lord knows I’ve made some mistakes. I have done some things that I am not really proud of. But, the Lord has just kept me continually. And so, when things get really hard, you just praise God, and just keep going.

JS: Why did you come back to Pittsburgh?

EC: Um. New York was…fine. Haha! Just that I like the family thing. And you’re a big family when you’re doing a show, and everybody talks to one another, and when the show closes, then you’re competitors. And I didn’t like that because I don’t feel that I’m a real showbiz type of person. That’s why jazz fits so much more neatly for me. Because, I’m not, “Look at me! Look at me! Hey!” I’m not that. And being around people like that continually grates on my nerves. And I think that’s probably why. And I knew that I could come back here, have a nice apartment, and not have to spend a ton of money to live.

JS: What’d you do when you came back?

EC: I became a Kelly girl, sort of getting different jobs like that. And always singing, singing with the band. And then I got a job at Western Psych, working for two child psychologists. And I could have gone to Pitt and gotten my masters in Ethnic Musicology. But I was all set to do that, and then we got a call to sing and play in Atlantic City. So I went to Atlantic City!

JS: Oh did you? So you lived in Atlantic City?

EC: Well the band would play up there three or four times a year, and we’d be there maybe two or three months at a time. And the casinos just opened, and they had a lot of jazz groups there, and it was a lot of fun. I’d never been in a casino in my life. And walked past one and I found a dollar on the floor of the Golden Nugget and put it in and hit for $10 and thought, whoa, this is fantastic!

JS: Yeah! Yeah! God is with me! The Lord is on the throne! Talk to us about teaching now. How rewarding is this; a little advanced in your career now and you get a chance to work with young students.

EC: You know, I saw the principal this year and she said, “Oh Miss Cox, how are you doing?” I said, “I’m stoked!” I’ve been so excited this year because I’m teaching the things and thinking, boy, I didn’t know I knew so much about jazz; all these years. And giving to the kids, I want to share. I want to know. Because around CAPA, most of the time, oh, Miss Cox you sing jazz. They don’t know anything about it. They go, “Doop doop a dee bee dee bee dee bee.” They really don’t know what it’s about. So this gives them more of an opportunity. And in the past four years, since 2009, we have sent three of our students to the Grammy’s, that have auditioned for the eight-voice Grammy high school ensemble. And they’re fantastic. And one of them, well I helped all three of them, but two in particular; Andre Brown, we went over this very difficult eight part harmony jazz songs that they taught them. And they got to be on the Grammy’s. I didn’t get to go, but I was there for everything else. And I went up there for six days. And just to see the talent, and I think there’s a resurgence of talent coming through Pittsburgh; jazz talent; the young kids. Oh my gosh, they had Michala Williams, she’s my student at CAPA, and her brother Brett.

JS: Yeah he performed at the church last year with his group. We had that evening for the student ministries missions. And he came up to me, “Hi, Mr. Stanko.” And I [was wondering], who is this guy? And here it was Bishop Garlington’s grandson; Chett Williams son. So you say we‘ve got lots of talent?

EC: Oh yes. Benny Benack III. He went out to the Grammy’s; he was with the Grammy orchestra out there.

JS: That’s a name; blast from the past. We grew up hearing Benny Benack and his orchestra.

EC: Yes. And Benny Benack III is going to the Manhattan school. And he is so good. He can sing. He can play the horn. And a nice kid. And these kids are nice kids. They don’t have egos as big as the country. They’re nice kids that really want to learn. And Michala just auditioned for Wagner School University, up there in New York. And I said, how’d you do, and I gave her an Italian piece to do and she did a song from Hairspray “I Know Where I’ve Been.” And her mother told me that she just blew them away.

JS: Yeah. Lori. I married them.

EC: Oh did you?

JS: Yeah. We go waayyyy back. For their wedding, we were in Alabama, and everybody stayed in our home. We’ve got quite a history. So what’s there left to do? What’s still on the bucket list for Etta Cox?

EC: You know as I get older, and last year having put my father into a nursing home, which was really hard. The Father’s Day I remember running into you and I was drenched in tears, and you looked at me and said, “Oh I’m not going there!” And that made me laugh. I went through so much with him, in maybe the 4 or 5 weeks before and realizing that I cannot do this anymore. And, it was very difficult with no family here in Pittsburgh; none.

And I am helping Al and serving as a caregiver for him since he had a stroke. And helping to raise a six-year-old, which is just the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life. Since I’ve never had children, and knew I couldn’t have children at 28. And I never felt bad for myself. But God in His infinite wisdom brought this child into my life, since he’s been 2.5. And I think helping to raise a God-fearing child, getting him to church school every Sunday, and asking him what he learned. Molding a new life, that’s it for me.

JS: And he’s living with you?

EC: Yes.

JS: Well that’ll keep you young.

EC: Yeah, I have both of my knees wrapped right now!

JS: Yeah if I see you crying again, I’ll know that something else is going on, not the oldest one in your life, but the youngest one. I’ll try and do a better job at identifying where you are! But Etta, we love you. And thank you for all that you do. You’re a stabilizing force in the community and what you’re doing, and strong witness, and great singer.

EC: Aww thank you. I don’t know why anybody would put my name into this. Because I haven’t done anything more than anybody else. But I do love the Lord, and I’ve learned so much just being in the congregation at ACAC; I really have.

JS: Yeah, well we all have. And the fact that you don’t know is one of the reasons they put you in. Because day in and day out, you do what it is God created you to do, and you do it well, and you don’t draw attention to yourself, apart from when you’re on stage and that’s appropriate. Anyways. Thank you for being a part.


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