Trudy Pitts: Meeting the Next Keyboard Challenge
AAJ: Let's go back to some of those early days of yours. I'm not going ask you how old you are [Pitts chuckles], but you're a native Philadelphian...
TP: Yes, I am. I grew up in South Philly, Vic.
TP: You know, the twenty-hundred block of Reed Street, near Smith Elementary School where I attended. I think the school is still there at 19th and Wharton Sts. My family soon moved to 21st and Manton Street, which became our family home. This was near Barrett Middle School where I also attended. Mr. Poindexter, my counselor as a student, went on to become the principal there. When I graduated from The Philadelphia Musical Academy with a Bachelor's Degree, he asked me to join the faculty there, which I did. You know, I'm South Philly all the way! After five years of teaching public school and performing locally in Philly, I began to travel with music.
AAJ: Were you doing music in high school?
TP: Oh yes, I was doing music before elementary school. Five years old.
AAJ: You started at quite a young age!
TP: Yep, very young.
AAJ: Let's see, your mother was a musician. How did you start playing?
TP: I started in an atmosphere of music. My mother was a pianist and vocalist. I was born into a house where there was a piano. Then, a piano was part and parcel of your home, so when I was born, there was a piano there, and I've never lived in a house without a piano. My two sisters were musicians, and I being the youngest of four siblings, I wanted to be a part of this musicwhy should I be left out? And so, when I was six, I asked to start being involved, taking lessonsand that's the way that came about. It was an atmosphere in which I was supposed to be a part of that whole musical vibe.
AAJ: So you weren't compelledit was natural.
TP: Oh, yeah. I asked to do it. I wanted to be included in the flow, which I loved. So it was a done deal.
AAJ: It was instinctive.
TP: You might be able to say it was instinctivedepending on how you think of instinct. Perhaps if it hadn't been the musical atmosphere, I wouldn't have asked to do it because it wouldn't have been in my spirit and my daily life. So, more than instinct, you could say "atmospheric," OK?
AAJ: That's an interesting distinction.
TP: Like "you are what you eat," you are where you came from. I came from music.
AAJ: Were there radio and recordings in your home then?
TP: Oh, yes. My father was an advocate of the classical music. There was a strictly classical radio station back in the day, WFLN, and that's what my father would listen to. However, my sisters and brother were into the swing period, which existed back in those days, going to cabaret parties and dancing, a fun aesthetic thing that finally died away like most things that people enjoy. But then, it got into this period of music we just finished talking aboutbebopand they had recordings of all those people, so I was listening to that as well. So I had the best of both worlds, hearing the classical music on the radio with my dad, and then my two sisters and my brother being of the age where they could buy records. I was hearing people like [pianists] Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Wynton Kelly and quite a few others, I was particularly drawn to Ahmad Jamal for his use of space, as he still is, coupled with his impeccable technique! All the masters...
AAJ: Did you go to any of the concerts of the time? [saxophonist] Benny Golson was coming up, for example.
TP: You're talking much later! In the mid-1950s, I was ultimately led into the jazz world of music by "Mr. C.," who at that time was a vocalist, drummer, promoter, and leader of his own group known as "Bill Carney's Hi-Tones." Down the pike, he hired Benny Golson to do a few gigs with us, along with many of the saxophone icons and guitar wizards. "Mr. C" is Bill Carney, who much later became my husband. At this time, [saxophonist] John Coltrane and [drummer] Albert "Tootie" Heath were members of his group. Shirley Scott had recently vacated the organ seat, and he needed an organist, so I was recommended! We soon became known as "Trudy Pitts & Mr. C.'"
AAJ: Before that, though, Trane was studying music in Philly.
TP: But I wasn't involved in all that. I didn't know him then.
AAJ: He and Golson heard Parker and [trumpeter Dizzy] Gillespie in a concert at the Academy of Music, which set their heads spinning musically.
TP: I'm not familiar with that. As for myself, I heard the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy at the Academy back then!
AAJ: Am I correct in surmising that you had some early interest in church music?
TP: Of course. My family was steeped into the church. Even my grandmother was involved in the Hallelujah Chorus. My mother was in the church choir. When you're a child, you're like a sponge, you absorb your environment, and that's where you gain your own voice, if you ever do so. When you sit down to dinner, you're gonna taste what's on the plate, and that's what developing a taste and a concept is all aboutsoaking up the vibes. So, I grew up in church. I was playing for Sunday School when I was nine years old. I did my first recital when I was nine, solo piano. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, some heavy stuff. To me music is a feeling, then after that comes all the tools. To be an architect, a sculptor, a journalist is a feeling. It's an art form, and all art forms are born in your spirit as a feeling.
AAJ: I love that concept: an art form is a feeling. Wonderful. So you were absorbing a legacy. What about that swing musicSinatra, Dorsey, etc?
TP: I loved Sinatra, yes. I've played all that stuff. I've done theater, church, jazz, so that's why that desert island question is so difficult for me. I've done so many different scopes of music.
AAJ: Now, when did you start on the organ?
TP: In church. When I was about twelve, the church officials asked me if I'd be interested in studying organ. At eleven, we went to Shiloh Baptist Church at 21st and Christian, and they had an organ in the Sunday School room. They sponsored me financially with organ lessons, and when I could handle it, I played in Sunday School. Then I became the assistant organist in the main sanctuary, helping the organist to train the choir. And subsequently, at around fourteen or fifteen, I got five dollar jobs as funeral organist. And then, I got offers at other churches, to be minister of music, playing for the services, training the choir, and so on. And later, I had to give that up when I started traveling. But I got into the organ again under Mr. C's influence. I wasn't looking for itit came to me.
AAJ: Along the way, you studied at Julliard?
TP: Yes, as I said earlier, I graduated from The Philadelphia Musical Academy (now the University of the Arts), all classical training, And then I did post graduate studies in Composition and extended Piano in New York City at The Julliard School of Music. Also along the way, I attended Connecticut College for Women, and Temple University, right here in Philly.
AAJ: Did you have an intention in mind at that point?
TP: Oh, without a doubt! My classical vision and striving was to become a concert pianist.