Trudy Pitts: Meeting the Next Keyboard Challenge
AAJ: Do you know that there are striking parallels between your early career and that of [singer/pianist] Nina Simone? She, too, wanted to be a concert pianist.
TP: I knew Nina in Philadelphia. We didn't get to bond as friends, but we knew each other through the music business.
AAJ: So you're going along in a classical vein, so how did this all segue into jazz?
TP: I got a call from "Mr. C" to take Shirley Scott's place in his group. That's what opened the door to my Jazz Career. "Mr. C" started booking me in local dinner clubs doing solo organ, piano, and vocals. That was great to help develop a sense of balance in the language of jazz. In particular, I played in a club at 52nd and Girard Streets called Ye Tavern, a beautiful place called The Postal Card on South Street, and others. It was at that time that I was forced to join the Union, Local 247, Philadelphia's Music Protective Union.
But my interest in jazz started earlier, because I entered Philadelphia Musical Academy at eleven. I had studied with the local teacher, the legendary Blanche Burton Lyles. My mother studied with her, my sisters and I studied with Blanche, and we're still very good friends. Blanche merged into education, and I went for performance. But certain realities became clearit became unrealistic for me to become a classical concert pianist. There were no black woman concert pianists that I knew of. Making a living was beginning to hit me in the face.
Then I got that call from Mr. C to replace Shirley Scott. That's what opened the door to my jazz career. He and Coltrane got my mother's permission to put the organ in our house for me to practice, because although I had no experience in the jazz format, they were enchanted with my knowledge of chord progressions. I had perfect pitch. I was listening to the jazz thing, and able to pick up on it. So I had an innate ability to deal with the changes and the tunes. So I practiced, did a couple of gigs with Trane and "Tootie" Heath, but only for a month or two, because I needed more experience. So I started doing solo organ, piano, and vocals around Philadelphia, which was great experience to develop a sense of balance in the language of jazz.
AAJ: So you performed around town, and that strengthened your commitment to jazz.
TP: Yes, and that was around 1955, and it was then, in another set of circumstances, my husband (Mr. C.) and I were seeing each other, that I rejoined the organ trio in 1958. And that was itI stuck with the organ.
AAJ: That was a landmark for you. Who was in that group?
TP: Mr. C was the drummer. We had several different horn players. Trane had gone off to be with [trumpeter] Miles [Davis]. Trane's mother was against him moving to New York, but it was a good move, because look what came out of it! At one point Jimmy Oliver was in our group here, I was at the organ. With the organ, you don't use a bassist, because you play your own bass lines. We used a lot of different horn playersa guy named Musa Kaleem who was an international tenor saxophonist who later went to California. We switched sax players often, and I don't recall all of their names.
AAJ: As an aside, I seem to remember that some years ago, you were at Zanzibar Blue when it first opened over at 11th and Pine Streets. Is that correct?
TP: Well, no, Zanzibar Blue was not in the making back in the day. It wasn't even a heartbeat then. And speaking of them boys [the family that ran Zanzibar], they don't have any bearing on my career, but their father did. Ben, Sr. was an impresario in Philly, with two or three jazz clubs. So my association with Ben, Jr. and Bob was more from a family relationship. And I have not worked for them directly. I went to Zanzibar to hear the music, but I never worked there. It seems incredible, but I haven't. Dad is still hangin' in there and at one point ran Warmdaddy's for his sons.
AAJ: Getting back to the jazz career, developing as a jazz-atrist, who were you listening to then, and who were some of your favorite jazz organists?
TP: I like Jimmy [Smith]. He was the master of the new sound. I spoke at his funeral and played there. He was the magic that turned on another sound in the music industry and inspired lots of organists to get a piece of that train, most of whom were coming from right behind, trying to sound like Jimmy. I adored Jimmy and admired his creativity, his energy, his strength, and his dynamics. But behind that came some very incredible people like Don Patterson, whom I idolized. Richard "Groove" Holmes became like my brother. Charles Earland was playing horn and came to hear me play and finally jumped on organ. So like I had different relationships with all of them. Jack MacDuff, all of them.
AAJ: Some were associated with guitarist Pat Martino in those days.
TP: Yes, and Pat was associated with me before he came out with his first album. I was doing some recordings for Prestige Records, and while he was still my guitarist, they offered Pat a contract. And I was on his first album, as he was on mine. Pat was with me for about two years. And my students down at the University of the Arts tell me they still listen to those albums when Pat and I were together.
AAJ: I've got to get some of those recordings!
TP: Actually there's a fairly recent CD called Acid Jazz with Pat and me. We're friends and have had an enduring relationship.