Pittsburgh-Area Trumpeter Recalls 'Pinch-Me' Moments Touring With Prince

Jun 18, 2016

The meeting happened nearly 30 years ago, but Matthew Blistan remembers nearly every detail.

Sitting inside a Minnesota recording studio, Blistan was waiting to work when Miles Davis walked in and sat down.

For Blistan, a 1970 Peters Township High School graduate who began playing the trumpet in sixth grade at the urging of music teacher Dave Pew, meeting the pioneering jazz legend was one of those pinch-me moments.

"Miles Davis, he's been my mentor as long as I can remember, since Peters Township easily," Blistan said recently from his Ligonier Township, Westmoreland County, home. "Here he is sitting beside me, and he's talking to me."

The meeting only got better.

"With everything I've done in music, meeting Miles Davis, that was the peak for me," Blistan continued. "Not only to talk to him, but to have him sit beside me and tell me, 'I like what you played on that last record.' I couldn't believe it, hearing that from him."

Davis was familiar with Blistan's work because, at the time, the former Duquesne University music education student was trumpeter for Prince and his work was so standout, Davis was occasionally credited for it. In the mid-1980s, Prince was at the peak of his popularity, and, arguably, his creativity, which made Blistan one of the world's more well-known and easily identifiable - thanks to an ample amount of long, curly hair Prince insisted he grow - trumpet players.

Blistan joined The Revolution by chance, much like his meeting with Davis, an unabashed Prince fan who played a New Year's Eve concert with the group in 1987 at Paisley Park Studios in Minneapolis.

After graduating from Duquesne, Blistan formed and played in bands such as On the Corner, Takin' Names and Parker Brothers. The groups played "eight nights a week in the tri-state area. The music scene was really happening in Pittsburgh."

The grind got to Blistan, who envisioned himself playing venues the size of Civic Arena as opposed to Boardwalk in Mt. Lebanon or Someplace Else in Baldwin. He moved to Atlanta with his wife, Mary Ann, and worked in construction. Eric Leeds, a former classmate at Duquesne who played with Blistan in On the Corner, joined The Revolution as saxophonist in 1985. Prince, coming off the release of "Purple Rain," wanted a trumpet player, so Leeds called his longtime friend.

"He said, 'You're booked tomorrow for an audition with Prince,'" Blistan said. "I said, 'OK, I haven't played in six months.' I oiled the valves and prayed a whole lot. Well, Eric called back and said the audition was off. My first thought was it wasn't meant to be. Then, he said it's actually a recording session with Prince."

Blistan, then 33, arrived in Minneapolis and recorded "Mountains" with Prince and The Revolution. Things moved quickly, and he stayed for six years, lending his talents to some of Prince's most popular albums, "Parade," ''Sign O' The Times," ''Black Album," ''Lovesexy," ''Batman," and "Graffiti Bridge." Blistan and Leeds toured the world with the energetic frontman, and he fulfilled his dream of playing Civic Arena in 1988, as part of Prince's Lovesexy band. Blistan managed to get 100 tickets from bandmates and crew members, enough to fill the requests of family and friends, including Pew, who gave him a musical start.

For Blistan, playing Civic Arena ranks with being on stage at Madison Square Garden or hanging with jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, another musical influence, in Paris.

But nothing during that time tops the memories made on stage and in the studio with Prince.

"Prince could play the drums, keyboard, bass and guitar. He could hang with anybody on the bass, and he's the most underrated guitar player of all time. He could sing. He danced. He was a terrific athlete. He produced. He engineered, but he couldn't play saxophone or trumpet," Blistan explained. "There's nobody like him."

Prince's early hits didn't feature horns, but after Blistan and Leeds joined, parts were added for live performances, which Blistan called "the ultimate challenge."

"He had a constant stream of thought. If he called at 2 a.m. and said, 'Come over here,' it was our job to get over there," Blistan said. "He'd sing us the horn parts and it was up to you to play it how he wanted it to sound. You had to do it quickly. You had to keep up. It was always a challenge."

Prince challenged musicians and music's barriers until April 21, when he was found unresponsive in an elevator in his suburban Minneapolis compound. His death, the result of a fentanyl overdose, rippled through the music community, and it rekindled memories for Blistan, who Prince dubbed "Atlanta Bliss" one day in the recording studio. The nickname stuck.

To legions of die-hard Prince fans, the name Atlanta Bliss still carries considerable weight, even if he left the spotlight in 1991.

These days, Blistan works for a nonprofit in Pittsburgh, and drives 120 miles round trip on work days. He reunited with Prince in 2004, when Blistan attended his first Prince concert at - where else? - Civic Arena. The Sunday after Prince's death, Blistan returned to Paisley Park to reunite with old bandmates and remember their charismatic leader, who organized softball games between shows and introduced Blistan to a long list of A-list celebrities.

A steady stream of fans tracked down Blistan since the death of Prince. So did a few old friends from Peters Township, where his family maintains a home - his father, Matthew, lives in South Strabane Township. Blistan maintains memorablia from his Peters Township days, and he remains grateful for the school district's music program and hopeful it never faces elimination.

Blistan also hopes Prince's vault of music, which he said is "filled with incredible stuff," is tapped into soon, but he has no plans of reprising Atlanta Bliss, even if The Revolution plans to reunite. He prefers maintaining a low profile and keeps his gigs to the occasional wedding or funeral.

"I have to think his death is introducing his music to people who might only have known his name before, at least I hope it is," Blistan said. "He was so unique, so special. It was such a special time."