Trudy Pitts: Meeting the Next Keyboard Challenge
“ To me music is a feeling, then after that come all the tools...It's an art form, and all art forms are born in your spirit as a feeling. ”
On September 15, 2006, Trudy Pitts will have the distinction of being the first jazz musician to perform on the spectacular new organ in Verizon Hall, at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, in a concert opposite the great singer Nancy Wilson. The largest concert organ in the United States, officially known as The Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ (Dobson organ Op. 76), it was designed and constructed by the great organ builder, Lynn Dobson, and his incredible crew from Lake City, Iowa, and first used in classical concerts in May, 2006.
It is a massive state of the art pipe organ with both mechanical and electronic "trigger" mechanisms, two separate consoles, and computerized programming capability. Pitts' selection as the one to initiate the use of the organ in the jazz idiom indicates the extraordinarily high regard for her great talent and accomplishments, which those of us in the Philadelphia area have been fortunate to have at our doorstep for many years. Pitts is a felt presence everywhere in this city, and, although she has limited her traveling due to her family responsibilities, she has received international acclaim for her performances and recordings, as well as her creativity, innovation, candor, mentorship, and teaching ability.
One of the great things about Pitts is her "up front" readiness to engage herself fully in whatever she does. In this interview, her eagerness, enthusiasm, honesty, assertiveness, and richness of self-expression provide a refreshing change from the public relations "spinning" and prevarication that has become so commonplace in the contemporary media. It is this same directness and "living presence," along with her prodigious talent, that makes Pitts an exciting performer who is always eager to take on new challenges.
- Early Musical Life and Influences
- From Classical and Church Music to a Jazz Career
- The Dobson Organ and Pitts' Upcoming Kimmel Concert
- Pitts Speaks Out on Life and Spirituality
A propos of her winning enthusiasm, Pitts is the first person I've interviewed who started the dialogue before I asked her a question! As soon as I turned on the tape recorder, she jumped right in and said:
Trudy Pitts: Well, I'll be free and open just to answer your questions. It's a flow, it's a feeling, it's improvisation. But it's experienced improvisation, so it is what it is.
All About Jazz: I'm gonna put that in the interview.
TP: All right, baby!
AAJ: We'll start out with a warm-up question. It's the notorious desert island question: If you were going to that desert island, what recordings and scores would you take with you?
TP: Boy, that probably takes a lot of thoughtyou're really starting off with a whammer! If you're a musician, your scope is so wide; it's hard to really blow it down to a few compositions or performers. Well, I suppose I would take one of the Rachmaninoff piano concertos. I prefer to speak of individuals rather than a specific album. With that in mind, I would take some Ahmad Jamal, whom I've admired ever since I wet my feet in the jazz idiom.
Some Debussyas part of the evolution of classical music, I dig him very much. Probably take my son's CD, TC, the IIIrd, who is an aspiring jazz vocalist. He has a fairly new CD on the market, Mega Jazz Explosion (Independent, 2006). Of course it has a personal meaning for me. If I were going to be by myself on an island, I'd need to have my family there in spirit. I could listen to his beautiful work on CD. Finally, I might just take my solo CD, entitled Me, Myself, and I (Independent, 2003). Then again, Vic, all of this is tentative and open to possibilities, because I listen to so much music and so many different recordings. On another occasion, I might give you five different ones.
AAJ: Debussy, of course, is one of the formative influences on jazz.
TP: Absolutely. And Ravel. Hey, you listen to that stuff. Arnold Schoenberg. You can hear lots of things that jazz musicians have built on, maybe not even consciously but subconsciously. That period of classical music has been very influential in the work and study and performance of some jazz musicians, including myself.
AAJ: The bebop and post-bop musicians were especially interested in the classical composers. [Saxophonist] Charlie Parker, for example, studied and even memorized Stravinsky's compositions.
TP: My ears tell me that the bebop period, as [woodwind multi- instrumentalist] Rahsaan Roland Kirk once said, is the most creative "Step into Beauty" in the development of jazz. It'll never wear out.
Oh, yeah! Speaking of bebop and the evolution of the music, the bebop period has been, and still is even as we speak, the most creative development in this journey of jazz or African American classical music, if you will. Any progress that has been made in jazz resulted from the advent of bebop, with Charlie Parker, [saxophonist] Sonny Stitt, and some of the others who contributed so profoundly.
AAJ: It was a time of invention.
TP: They're synonymscreativity and invention.
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.
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.
AAJ: Now, when you were coming up, was there a standard organ that you guys played?
TP: Yeahthe Hammond B3 organ. It's still the standard. There are some new ones with new technology. Hammond itself has come out with updated organsJoey [DeFrancesco] is on top of that game. But my favorite is still the Hammond B3. It was the only one they used for many years with the sound of the Hammond organ. The percussion, the soulful bluesy sound.
AAJ: OK, let's move forward to the present dayyour upcoming concert at the Kimmel Center. A year or so ago, Mervon Mehta, the Kimmel VP for Programming, was seeking a jazz organist for the new organ that was being built in Verizon Hall by Lynn Dobson. In my AAJ article about the organ and its construction, I'm proud that I then advocated for the use of the organ in jazz concerts. At the time, Mr. Mehta was having informal conversations with top jazz organists, and he told me that some of them were intimidated by the new Kimmel organ and didn't think they could perform on it. Yet, you've accepted the challenge. So, I'm wondering if you can tell us what is involved in going from that portable Hammond B3 that you can bring around to clubs, to taking on this mammoth instrument in Verizon Hall.
TP: Well, when I was asked to do this, Vic, there were several things that made me consider it. First of all, I had done pipe organ as a child. And I played many pipe organs in both church work and theater, where the organs are even more profound and more massive than in churches. I still prefer pipe organs in churches, although they're using Hammond organ a lot now. It's the Jimmy Smith influence. Wherever you hear the particular B3 sound, it's because of Jimmy's efforts, talents, foresight, and creativity.
AAJ: You're really whetting my appetite for your concert. Are you going to use the console on the stage or the one that's just below the pipes [The organ at Kimmel has two keyboard consoles available]?
TP: The console on the stagethat's the one I'm going to use. Now, throughout my career, what has been very exciting and electric for me is to accept challenges, whenever they have come to me, and they have come left and right, things that I wonder if I'll accomplish, but then I never doubt that I'll do what I've been asked to do. So this event on the Kimmel organ is a different kind of challenge, to use their instrument, and I've accepted the commitment, and I'll do it well. Even though their organ is not tailor made to do jazz, but rather is tailor made to pipe organslow, like any pipe organ, except that it is more extensive. It has the air, the slowness, the delayed sound, etcetera. Although I understood that this organ was not going to be as slow as a traditional pipe organ, I've been on it, and I'm saying that "It is." It's massive, it's incredible, it's a monster. But it's still a pipe organ in a very contemporary, high-tech way.
AAJ: Do you like the sound?
TP: Oh, the organist has to define the sounds, like I do on any pipe organ, you dig? Even though I committed before I had a chance to see it and play it, and find out its possibilities for lending itself to jazz, what I've made up my mind to do is that I cannot make it a jazz instrument, but I have to adapt whatever I'm going to do to that organ and what that organ is able to respond to, which is not an easy task. But I hope to come up with a format that's acceptable to me to present what people will be looking for in jazz on that organ.
Currently, I'm finding the sounds and voicing and programming. It's exciting. With the way the organ is put together, the more I can feel that out, then I'll come up with my repertoire. That organ has no propulsion, so I can't actually swing, because swingin' is percussion. I probably can't do too much walkin' bass on it, because bass walkin' is swingin.' On a pipe organ, there's a delay.
AAJ: Well, in my humble opinion, J.S. Bach was the first jazz musician, and he used a pipe organ, so I think it'll be quite a jazz thing.
TP: Yeah, what is jazz? And everybody will come up with a slightly different interpretation of what jazz really is. It ain't just one thing. Because jazz is a feeling, and everybody doesn't have the same feeling, so the definition will vary.
AAJ: And the definition is so expanded today, to include world music, etc.
TP: That's right. So that's why I don't call myself a jazz musician. I think of myself as simply "a musician," because when I'm playing solo, I'm mixing classical all throughout. Then it becomes something else. I don't go for no titlesI'm a musician.
AAJ: Well, I sincerely hope the musicians themselves come to this concert, because I think it will be very enlightening and exciting for them.
TP: They're already told me they're getting their tickets, and they're telling me how thrilled they are that I'm doing it.
AAJ: You're on the same bill opposite Nancy Wilson.
TP: Nancy is an old friend from back in the day, and still now. Nancy is a pro. But getting back to the organ, my main focus is being able to control what I have to do and not allow any part of it to control me. I have to have total control and negotiation and manipulation with that instrument.
AAJ: You're a powerful womanno one would want to mess around with you! [laughter] So, let's talk about you as a person. I know there's no distinction between the musician and the human being, but I always ask musicians about their spirituality. Many jazz musicians have interesting slants on spiritual philosophy and/or attitude towards life. I wonder if you could reflect on your own.
TP: Well, what part of it? I would really dig it if you would be more specific.
AAJ: Well, some folks are involved with a particular religious group or preference, and for some it's more personal and from within. Maybe you want to talk about your understanding of life, what is its meaning to you, and so on.
TP: I see life as a gift from the Creator, a gift that is given to us when the time comes, that we are predestined to come into the world through our mother's womb by the decision of the Creator and that we all come with a mission. That mission is clearly defined to some people and others never know what their mission isthese are the unfortunate ones. I feel that the Great Divinity, the Creator of All Things, is the bottom line in my life, meaning that to wake up in the morning is the supreme blessing.
To be given the gift of health, to be given a talent, which is preconceived as well, that you've been fortunate enough to develop and bring some bright moments to some people in the world and make a difference, as in medicine, science, artistry of any kind. These are gifts from the Creatorsome people say Jesus Christ, I will say that; some say God. But to me all of the termslike we spoke about jazz a moment ago, have different definitions. I value the knowledge that without having been given my gift, I would not be the person that I am. Today, I consider myself very blessed and fortunate to have my children, my husband. To be considerate, compassionate, tolerant, caring, giving, and thankful for your blessings is where I am in terms of spirituality.
I have a philosophyI live by philosophy. Some of it is automatic, but I guess most of it is conscious. To give thanks, to look at the moon, the sun, the stars, the ocean, the greenery, the trees, the flowers, the rain, the snow, and I see God. People have said my spirituality is very obvious, because if that is your philosophy, you can't hide thatit jumps out of your spirit, out of your face, and out of your mouth, just because it's you, and just because it's there. I value the motivation that I have because that is what keeps me going from to day to daythe knowledge that anything you want to do is possible, if you really want to do it badly enough. I value that. It is my inspiration to accomplish and use each day.
The Bible speaks of "don't worry about tomorrow and next week and next month, but use today with all the strength and energy and creativity you have." And that is what I try to do. I don't always accomplish it, because we have other things that get in the way of seeking the truth. There's a truth that's there, like the air. But you have to keep trying to follow your philosophy and make your own footsteps in the sand, find your own voice, and try to make a difference in the few years you have as a gift to be alive, here.
The fact that we leave here, sooner or later, indicates to me that it isn't ours to keep. We're given it for a certain amount of time, and then it's taken away. It's only a loan. If you're lucky, you find your mission, for those who know in their spirit what their mission is. The others don't get it. And then I think about that. Do they have a gift they're not accepting; or are they accomplishing their mission and don't know it? So maybe our mission is not as grand as what we think we should be living. So, my philosophy has many tentacles and goes into many areas of my life.
Had I not been a musician, I think I would have been a psychologist. I took some courses in that at Temple University and Connecticut College for Women. For most of my life, I've been a musician, a psychologist, and a mentor. And if that makes a difference, then that's what makes me happy, like when they come up to me and say, "Pitts, you made me cry tears of joy with your music." That's where it's at for me. When they say, "You made me wanna get up and shout for joy," that's another mission. If I can give you a bright moment, even if it's taking a problem away from your presence for a few minutes, then I think I've done what my intention is.
AAJ: That's beautiful! It goes very deep for you. Let's just close with some of your recent and future projects. I understand you were involved in a jazz piano event at the Kennedy Center not so long ago.
TP: This year in May, they held the 11th Annual Mary Lou Williams Festival and Piano Competition at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. I have been honored to be in performance on this magnificent occasion four times, at the invitation of the prestigious Dr. Billy Taylor, the originator of this significant festival. In this concert, I always play both piano trio and organ trio. The past two years, it's been extended to encompass an International Piano Competition. Women from all over the world apply. There have been three judges to finalize the winner. In the first year, they were Dr. Billy Taylor, Geri Allen, and myself. For the second year, the judges were Geri Allen, Renee Rosnes, and me. After listening to all of the submitted CDs, we then select five finalists out of 50-60 applicants. We then listen to them perform "live" on stage at The Kennedy Center, and then select the final winner who will have the honor of performing the following year at the Major Festival with an ensemble.
AAJ: What do you want to do down the pike?
TP: Well, I wanna do some more recording, I wanna record some more organ. I'm writing all the time. I want to move forward with my "Sweet and Joyful Noise," a jazz sacred suitenon-stop hour-and-a-half music. I've performed it a few times, but it's in the air now for us to have it orchestrated for symphony orchestra. I would like to record solo piano again. I like doing concerts, festivals. I'm teaching at two universities and looking forward to teaching this fall. I do college lectures and concertsthe youth gives me energy and inspirationit's contagion. I wanna do everything I can to continue to be creative with music.
Trudy Pitts, Me, Myself And I (Independent, 2003)
Trudy Pitts/Mr. C, Vintage Series - Volume 1 (Independent, 2003)
Trudy Pitts/Pat Martino, Legends of Acid Jazz (Prestige, 1999)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Return of the 5000 lb Man (Atlantic, 1975)
Willis "Gator" Jackson, Star Bag (Prestige, 1968)
Trudy Pitts, Excitement of Trudy Pitts (Prestige, 1968)
Trudy Pitts, Them Blues of Mine (Prestige, 1967)
Pat Martino, El Hombre (Prestige, 1967)
Trudy Pitts, Bucketful of Soul (Prestige, 1967)