When Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood made its public-television debut on Feb. 19, 1968, its creator and host, Fred Rogers, already knew that music would play an important role in the show; he was, after all, a pianist and composer himself. But for most of the program’s 31-season run, the melodies Rogers wrote would be given a distinctive character by musical director and Pittsburgh jazz-piano great Johnny Costa. Deeply interwoven within Rogers’ kindly and compassionate approach to instructing youngsters—and addressing such weighty topics as divorce, overcoming fear or feeling angry—was some of the most colorful and creative jazz ever aired on national TV.
What Costa, who died of anemia in 1996 at age 74, brought to the show was a sense of improvisatory sophistication that exposed millions of kids to a complex music form they might not otherwise have heard, save perhaps for Vince Guaraldi’s work on A Charlie Brown Christmas. Early on, some criticized Rogers’ inclusion of jazz, saying it was too sophisticated for a children’s show. But over the years, the music that accented those 895 half-hour episodes has become one of the program’s strongest legacies, thanks to both the in-house talent and the array of guests who stopped by—including Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Yo-Yo Ma, André Watts, synthesizer pioneer Bruce Haack and Tony Bennett.