Joe Negri — a well-known actor, educator, composer and jazz musician — will return to Youngstown State University on April 12 to teach a masterclass at Bliss Recital Hall. The free event is sponsored by the Dana Guitar Association and will emphasize jazz and musical improvisation.
Known for his role as Handyman Negri in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the jazz guitarist didn’t begin his acting career until the show’s star and creator, Fred Rogers, asked him to join the cast.
“I knew [Rogers] from the Pittsburgh scene,” Negri said. “He asked me to be the handyman, and if there is one thing I am not, it is handy.”
Even while starring as a regular cast member in the hit children’s TV show, Negri’s musical talents were featured in performances and duets with other characters in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. During this time, Negri was majoring in composition at Carnegie Mellon University, and he went on to teach at Duquesne University, at the University of Pittsburgh and at his alma mater.
Negri’s interest in music began in early childhood when, at only 3 years old, he sang and played the ukulele on the radio, and also appeared in various theater productions. He learned to play the guitar before age 10, and by 16, he was on the road, performing in bands.
“I can’t say I came from a musical family,” he said. “But there was always music around me.”
Francois Fowler, a professor of guitar and the adviser to the Dana Guitar Association, said he is honored to have Negri on campus.
“It’s absolutely amazing to see how much positive energy and passion [Negri] has for music and teaching. It’s very inspirational,” Fowler said. “He has so much knowledge and experience in matters ranging from what it takes to be a professional performing musician, improviser, arranger and composer, … and he is gracious and generous in sharing this vast knowledge with students.”
Fowler noted that many students who attended last year’s event remembered Negri from his TV career.
“I noticed many people were star-struck … getting to meet a celebrity they remembered from ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’” he said.
Philip Monrean, a second-year music performance major and the vice president of the Dana Guitar Association, said he devotes his time to raising funds in order to bring musicians like Negri, a “world-class guitarist,” to the Youngstown area.
“I have so much to learn from him, both in guitar technique and also in developing my musical improvisation skills,” he said.
This event will be Negri’s second visit to YSU.
“I am glad to be invited back again. That made me feel really good,” Negri said. “I hope students can get a lot out of [the masterclass].”
Monrean said all students, not just guitarists, can enjoy Negri’s visit.
“If the average Joe wants to attend, they will be in the presence of a famous American icon, Handyman Negri,” Monrean said. “They will get to be in the presence of a great musician who is not only entertaining through his music but also through his lively personality.”