The enduring career of Etta Cox is one of successes, challenges, and interminable faith.
By Zach Armstrong
Photo by Kahmeela Friedson
Audiences in jazz clubs, Broadway theaters, film screenings and social gatherings have found themselves entertained for decades by the immense singing and acting talent of Northside celebrity Etta Cox.
Cox, who was crowned the 2018 Northside Mardi Gras Queen, is best known for her jazz singing, performing various gigs in Pittsburgh alongside trombonist Al Dowe and his band. She and Dowe have also performed in Atlantic City and New York City, opening for big names including Ray Charles, Danny Glover, and Doc Severinsen.
In Pittsburgh, Cox has become a regular performer at the city’s most popular venues and clubs including the former James Street, Atria’s and Brown Chapel AME Church.
“Etta Cox has been a staple of the jazz program at City of Asylum since the beginning,” said Abby Lembersky, director of programs at City of Asylum. “Her concerts consistently amaze and delight, and keep audiences clamoring for more.”
Cox’s acting career on both screen and stage has also become prolific. She appeared in several Broadway productions including “I Love My Wife”, “The 1940’s Radio Hour” and “The Me Nobody Knows.” In film, Cox made appearances alongside actors such as Russell Crowe in movies including “Cemetery Club,” “Bump in the Night,” and “Silent Witness.”
The city of Pittsburgh has honored Cox over the years with several awards, marking her place as one of the most prominent regional talents. She was voted “Performer of the Year” by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1999, selected as one of the “25 Most Powerful Women in Pittsburgh” by Pittsburgh Magazine and has been voted “Best Jazz Vocalist” in Pittsburgh for eight consecutive years. Although she is recognized as a Yinzer talent, Cox is not actually native to Pittsburgh.
Cox was raised during the time of segregation in St. Joseph, Missouri, a town with a population of approximately 8,000. Despite having memories of being called the N-word and being told where to sit, Cox was resilient against racism in her town. In addition to being the first African American admitted into the prestigious Fortnightly Musical Society, Cox was also the first Black woman to win the Miss St. Joseph Pageant.
“My father always told me, ‘Don’t let your color stand in the way of doing anything,’” said Cox.
Music has always played a large role in Cox’s life ever since the age of three when she began singing. Her sister, who is three and a half years older than her, taught her songs that were sung at school so that she could get ahead of the other students. Her grandmother, who lived with her parents and sister growing up, would constantly play the piano and sing gospel songs.
The first celebrity inspiration for Cox wasn’t a recording artist; it was a spokeswoman for pancake mix. Ethel Harper, who portrayed Aunt Jemima during the 1950s, visited Cox’s second-grade class to perform a song while dressed as the fictional character.
“When I saw her standing there singing and dancing, I thought to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” said Cox.
Cox moved to Pittsburgh when her husband was transferred for his job. After the couple divorced, Cox remained in the city because it was closer to New York, giving her a chance to get on Broadway. Al Dowe asked Cox to perform in his band after seeing her perform at the Archer Playhouse in the South Hills and noticed she had been well received.
In 1979, Cox and Dowe released a vinyl record together titled “A Touch of Class.” After having a hard time finding gigs, Dowe decided to open his own jazz club to book his own shows.
Cox and Dowe co-owned the jazz club Dowe’s on Ninth in downtown Pittsburgh for seven years hosting local jazz artists along with themselves. The 1,100-square-foot venue included two bars, a stage for performers, and a seating area for tables. In 2007, the club closed due to financial issues.
“Those were some good years,” said Cox. “It was also a nightmare because I was there 18 or 19 hours a day and it was grueling.”
A few years after the club opened, the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) school started to be constructed next door. While talking to the superintendent of the school, Dowe mentioned that Cox had a degree in music education and the school quickly offered her a job. This school year is Cox’s 17th year teaching at CAPA. She teaches Vocal Music, Classic Jazz Singing, Theater Performance, Jazz and Vocal History, Sight Reading, and Sight Singing.
“In a performing arts school there are young kids coming in that you can teach and mold and give them so many choices for life,” said Cox. “I tell them to go for what they love, work hard, but enjoy what they do.”
Though her life has proved to be an array of successes, Cox has also persevered through hardships; the most traumatic one happened during her college years. In Cox’s senior year, she said a male actor who had come to her school for a Broadway show convinced her to come back to his motel room because he forgot his wallet and raped her.
The event affected Cox both emotionally and physically. Her vocal chords were harmed and scar tissue, likely from this incident, was discovered on them as recent as a decade ago. She abstained from vocal performances for months afterward. Despite the level of trauma that can be carried with rape, Cox says there was always something she had within that gave her the strength to survive the experience: her faith in God.
“My faith wasn’t challenged, because I knew God was with me in that moment,” said Cox.
“The Lord pulled me through it and He has always been there for me.”
Cox was raised in a Southern Baptist family and her father was a deacon in the local church. While she grew up, her father took her family to church three times during the week and Cox earned a religious education from elementary school through college at Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas. Today, she is a member of the Allegheny Center Alliance Church (ACAC).
“Trust and faith in God has always been important to me because the Lord gives you a gift,” said Cox. “I couldn’t do anything without Him, so I am always thankful.”
Cox is still a regular performer, singing at gigs in jazz clubs around the city along with occasional acting roles. Last year, she played the role of Ruby in “King Hedley II” at the August Wilson House.
“I still love singing,” said Cox. “I’m not bored by what I do yet and I’m not jaded with the way things are in life.”