Carnegie Mellon University alumnus Joe Negri will always be known for his role in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
The iconic TV series for young viewers was produced from 1968 until 2001 and still airs on many public television stations and is available at PBSKids and Amazon. Often, Mister Rogers would visit with Handyman Negri.
“In real life, I’m not very handy,” Negri said. “I’m a jazz musician.”
Among Negri’s music fans is Riccardo Schulz, a CMU School of Music professor who has recorded or produced more than 100 artists, including Negri.
“When I first heard Joe play the guitar,” Schulz said, “I realized that, though he was from Pittsburgh, he was anything but local. Joe could hold his own with the biggest and the best in the jazz world.”
“I have some fond memories of my music career,” said Negri, who is 91. “Playing with legendary jazz guitarist George Van Eps stands out. Recording with Michael Feinstein and performing with him and Wynton Marsalis at the Newport Jazz Festival a few years ago was another career highlight.”
Negri was a music major in CMU’s Class of 1954 when he accepted a job offer to play music for a local TV variety show. He worked his way up in the television field, eventually meeting Fred Rogers, who was developing a new concept in children’s television. Rogers asked him to join the cast, and Negri accepted.
Schulz grew up without a television, so he and Handyman Negri were strangers.
“I first met Joe many years ago when he was host of a local television program,” Schulz said. “I was the pianist for a featured singer. I was so nervous to be playing the piano on television. Joe, with his warmth and kindness and his calm, relaxed manner, put me at ease, and all went well.”
Like the late Rogers himself, Negri said he has tried to live his life exuding kindness.
“Things today can get really dark, but I have always been an optimist. Being around Fred only deepened that conviction. He rubbed off on me,” Negri said.
“What I realized early on about Joe is that it’s never about him,” said Schulz, who has hosted Negri as a guest in one of his multitrack recording classes at CMU. “It’s about the music, about his fellow musicians and his students. His modesty and generosity are an inspiration to anyone who has ever met him.”
Negri still gives occasional concerts, including ones where he plays his original composition, “Mass of Hope,” which Schulz recorded Negri performing in 2003 at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. “In addition to everything else, Joe is an accomplished composer,” Schulz said.
As much as Negri said he appreciated “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he said he is equally grateful for his career as a jazz recording artist made possible, in large part, to the foundation he received at CMU.
“I was a pretty darn good musician when I got there,” Negri said, “but I didn’t have musical background in theory. I picked that up at CMU, and it made everything come together.”