How many of us notice the average busker? We see them playing on sidewalks, corners, underpasses or subway stations all the time, but very few actually stand out. We either miss them or overtly ignore them, but it’s become very difficult to miss Reggie.
“‘ ‘Cause you’re an entertainer,” says a passer by as he drops a fistful of cash into the self-proclaimed Saxman’s case. Plenty of others did, too, but as always, only the good looking people are tipping today.
Now in his seventeenth year of publicly playing the instrument he picked up in the 6th grade because he didn’t like the trumpet, Reggie Howze’s act has turned into as much trash talk as it is playing of a number of staples on his alto sax. He’ll go from insulting fans of the opposing team to taking shots at the ones in black and gold or even their beloved Andrew McCutchen at the drop of a hat. He’ll suck up to others and play the sweetheart just the same. The jokes are often recycled, but he’s a stand up comic whose audience turns over every three minutes. Sometimes the jokes miss their mark entirely, but it doesn’t matter. The next wave is on their way across the Roberto Clemente bridge and they have no idea he just bombed. Now, he’s playing “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” till they arrive and it’s back to hurling complements or well-intentioned insults at passers by using a voice an octave higher than normal.
“When I used to be quiet and play, they’d just walk past me.” says Howze. “I would do better than most people. Then when I started interacting with people, they’d go get the police and they’d say you’re done for the day.”
This is how he makes his living and make no mistake he’s one of Pittsburgh’s hardest working showmen. He arrives a couple of hours before the puck drops and stays well past the final out. He hardly misses a home game for the Pirates, Pens or Steelers and he even travels to Morgantown for West Virginia Mountaineers football.
“Nobody’s going to outplay me.”
Howze grew up in the Hill District where he knew a number of people who he thought were loaded with talent in their chosen sports, but were presented with limited opportunities to show it off past a certain age. He played baseball himself at a high level and earned try outs with both the Pirates and Royals organizations. Despite this, he lamented the lack of excellent coaching in his neighborhood as the reason he and others couldn’t go further.
Luckily for him he also found music and had some great teachers from whom he could learn.
Still, he had to believe in himself. He started busking in 1998, doing little else, but playing his saxophone. He learned many lessons over the years. He could play jazz and the classics, but people rewarded him more when he played “Happy Birthday.” He also figured out where to stand so the police wouldn’t bother him. He found out quickly that if you miss a game, other musicians will lay claim to the best spots.
Today, he’s very well known. Most people heading to games seem familiar with him. Many will even hurl some of his familiar lines back at him before he even gets a chance. Others will coax him with a wadded up bill or two to play specific song. Through familiarity and perseverance more so than anything else, he’s become a star in many ways.
He knows it too, but he accepts the responsibility that comes with his surprising fame by serving as a role model in the community to present and future buskers. He proudly recounted one story where a boy from a “rough neighborhood” decided he wanted to be just like the Saxman after watching him perform. With younger buskers, he toes the fine line of encouraging people he competes with directly. He wants to see them succeed, but also creates security for himself by establishing allies. Though he gladly shared information about saving for the winter, what other street musicians to avoid, and good, safe spots to play, his perch on the supports of the Roberto Clemente Bridge wasn’t listed among them, at least not now. He feels if he doesn’t continue his streak, someone will simply take his place as he told a passing group of drummers. “Sometimes all it takes is for you not come for a little while and someone will believe [your spot is] their spot.”
He’s made some good friends over the years and he seemed genuinely to value the relationships he made beyond the tips. As a former athlete, he reported to not really being a fan of the Pirates, but folks he’s gotten to know keep him well-versed on the goings on in the organization. He spoke of former season ticket holders who no longer make it to games or who have since passed on with the kind of sadness usually reserved for family members. He shared a great deal of time sharing his story, but he spoke for an hour about the people who he’s come to know and cherish.
“It’s more than just playing the horn,” he said “A lot of these guys who play instruments will never get it like I’ve got it. I feel privileged.”
Some people say ‘nothing worth doing comes easy’ and it certainly didn’t for Howze. His smile does come easy. So do the songs he’s played hundreds if not thousands of times by now. So do the jokes he’s told even more often, and sometimes, the ones he makes up on the fly. Howze has become part of the game day atmosphere and he relishes that he’s been able to give back to his home town in a way that many would not have believed possible. He’s a constant and someone who we may even take for granted. In the end, Reggie Howze has a become a busker we can’t overlook when we see him, but also one who we’d notice even if he were gone.