Trudy Pitts: Extraordinary Pianist & Master of the Hammond B-3
The Student Meets the Master
Talking to keyboardist Trudy Pitts is like going on an adventure. It's the type of escapade where wanderlust, laughter and discovery are all intertwined. Whether on the telephone or in person, the discourse is utterly unpredictable, always exciting. I remember one night we were on the phone, reminiscing about when we met back in 1985. It was during my first month on the job as the arts and entertainment reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune.
Trudy's husband, a drummer and impresario known as "Mr. C," bypassed the receptionist and came straight over to my desk in the newsroom. He was accompanied by Jewel Mann, the tall, tan, attractive owner of Jewel's" They introduce themselves, say they want me to do an article on Gloria Lynn, a singer who was coming to Jewel's North Broad Street supper club.
"I been checking you out, young ladyLady Doveand er, ahI think you might have some potential. So I brought Jewel down here to set up this exclusive interview with Gloria Lynn. I'm bringing her to town in a few weeks. Yeah, I've been reading your columns and I really think you have the chops to do Gloria Lynn some justice. But before we get that far, we got to school you first. Jewel, give her the bio and the photo. See, we gonna give you the inside scoop, because Gloria Lynn is one of the last of the surviving true vocalists from the old days who's still around, still performing."
Jewel is laid back, charming, mostly just standing there, agreeing with everything Mr. C is saying. We develop an easy rapport and quickly discover we both have roots in South Carolina. She hands over the carefully prepared bio, her detailed press release, the photo.
"I realize you don't have a clue who I am," continued Mr. C. "I know I look like an old man to you, but back in the day I had this groupMr. C's Hightonesand John Coltrane was one of my sidemen. Yeah, John Coltrane."
I'm more than a little intrigued by Mr. C's forthright mannerhis arrogance. Actually I'm kind of turned on by it. Just come on with itbring it on! Also, I'm interested in covering the story. Contrary to what Mr. C thinks, I'm very familiar with Gloria Lynn's work. My favorite is her dreamy ballad, "I Wish You Love." It's one of those jazz classics, a standard.
Mr. C keeps barreling away: "After you finish taking care of Gloria Lynn, I want you to do a cover story on my wife. Trudy Pitts. She's one of the finest piano players in the world. I'm sure you'll love her. And I'm not just saying this because she's my wife. I mean Trudy is truly something special. She was in my group with Trane and the rest of the cats. She's played all over Europe, she recorded with [guitarist] Pat Martinohelped put him on the map. Heyyou ever heard of that British ocean liner, the Queen Mary? Well on the Queen Mary's final Trans-Atlantic crossing, Trudy was the organist. The passenger list was so impressive. I mean Sir Winston Churchill was on the ship. And he absolutely adored Trudy....But look a here, Trudy's out front in the car. We couldn't find a parking space so she's right out front; she's in the fire lane looking out so we don't get a ticket. Want to meet her?"
We go outside. A vibrant, buxom, middle-aged woman hurdles out of the car. She smiles broadly, greets me by my name, practically shouts at me, and then bursts out laughing.
"Hey Pheralyn! Bright Moments!"
She gives me a bear hug, effectively signaling everyone to join in her laughter. And I don't mean those stingy polite laughs. I'm talking thunderous laughterTrudy, Mr. C, Jewel and mewe laugh and shake like we just experienced the funniest thing that ever happened to Black folks standing in the middle of South 16th Street in front of the Tribune on a sunny March afternoon.
We've been like family ever since.
You could not picture a couple sharper in contrasts. Mr. C is the color of a gleaming yellow lemon. His personality also mirrors a lemon; he can be perceived as tart or refreshing, depending on the perspective. Conversely, Trudy is chocolate ganache: smooth, sweet, warm, easy to love. She's so humble to be such an immense talentdoesn't flaunt her stuff. She says her music is her ministry, that it's the only thing she's ever wanted to do.
Collaborations: Musical Magnificence
It turns out Mr. C's audacious claims about Trudy's prowess on the piano, her virtuosity, are true. Through the years, she has collaborated with Lionel Hampton, Clark Terry, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, James Moody, Jimmy Heath}, Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Odean Pope, Tyrone Brown, Sonny Stitt, John Blake, Al Grey, and a plethora of others. She's mentored many a young lion, including Joey DeFrancesco, Orrin Evans, Terrell Stafford, Tim Warfield. It's just always been nonstop music. Indeed, when she was nine months pregnant with her daughter Anysha, she was performing in a club with [saxophonist] Grover Washington, Jr. Her water broke mid-stroke during a solo, and she was rushed immediately to Albert Einstein Hospital.
Years later, her composition "Anysha" was featured on her solo piano project, "Me, Myself and I." In addition to being a pianist, Trudy is recognized as a master on the Hammond B-3 organ. Her recordings on the instrument for the Prestige label have become standard bearers: "Introducing Trudy Pitts," "Bucket Full of Soul" and "These Blues of Mine" feature Trudy as a leader; El Hombre (Riverside, 1967) was guitarist Pat Martino's first album as a leader.
Her seminal work, "A Joyful Noise," composed for orchestra, jazz ensemble and concert choir, premiered at Mother Bethel AME Church, in 1996. Compositions for the featured vocalists represent Trudy's favorite Biblical passages: Psalm 150, written for and sung by her son, T.C. III, Psalm 100 for her daughter Anysha, and The Lord's Prayer, for her daughter-in-law Laura. She performed a Mother's Day Concert with pianist Marian McPartland at Temple University in 1997. In 2006, Trudy became the first jazz musician to perform on the Philadelphia Kimmel Center's pipe organ (while simultaneously opening for Nancy Wilson). And, she has been invited back many times to appear in prominent live music showcases such as California's Monterey Jazz Festival. I recall Trudy telling me that by making music, she's following her destiny. This was during a 1993 interview for Jazz Philadelphia: "I feel there's a purpose for each and every one of us to be born and given the gift of life and breath. I feel that my purpose was to be here to play music." During that same interview, she also said: "Jazz is a phenomenon. Not only is jazz a phenomenon, it's an element that was created that almost lacks definition. Because it's endless. It isn't like sitting down and perfecting a work of Chopin, for instance, and getting it down to your satisfaction. Jazz is a matter of creativity and ever, ever searching. The door is open as far as you are able to go with it."
Sacred Soul Sisters
But I digress. Back to our conversation. Trudy was remarking about how when we met, Steve and I were still married and our daughter Shenneth was in diapers. And now here she is a young professional, on her own in Washington, D.C., with her undergraduate and graduate degrees behind her.
"I know, Trudy. I can hardly believe it myself. Where does the time go?"
"You know, Anysha and I were just talking about that last night. She's my baby, 'cause you know. I can't remember how many times I've told you Anysha is a full eleven years younger than TC. What on earth were me and C thinking? Starting all over again like that. But that's my baby girl and she's just a blessing. And now look at her. I was so happy when Laura and TC gave me my first grandson, but here she's got so grown she's given me two more grandbabies, beautiful boys. And such an attentive mother! I tell you, Nysha and Randy sure do make some pretty babies."
"Can you believe it Trudy? We've been friends now for almost 25 years. Can you imagine25 years! And you've stuck by me through everythingeverything. Anytime I need you, you're always there for me. And that means a lot."
"Yeah, Pheralyn. Anysha and I were seriously trying to figure it out. What exactly is the essence of time? Where does it go? What happens to all those days that go by? And I tell you, I got so inspired that when we got off the phone, I wrote these lyrics. All day I've been hearing the melody, playing around with some chords. I really think I'm on to something. Want to hear it? Want to hear what I've sketched out so far?"
She scurries around in the background muttering under her breath. "Where'd I put it? I just had it." I can tell she's shuffling papers, trying to put her hands on that particular piece of sheet music. Then I hear Mr. C summoning her.
"Trudy!" he bellows from the back room.
First she ignores him. Then she tells him, "Hold on."
"Why?" he wants to know.
"Because I'm talking to Pheralyn on the phone."
"Oh. Then why didn't you say so?"
"I just did."
More zingers. They spar a few more rounds. Then Trudy abruptly turns her attention back to me. She hums a few bars, then reads the lyrics to her new song, "What Happened To Yesterday."
"Oh Trudy, it's beautiful. Simply gorgeous. I love it."
"You think so? You like it? You know Pheralyn, it's just like we're some kind of spiritual sisters. We relate on so many spiritual levels. You with your writing, your poetry. Me with my music. Both of us with our families. You know there's something special about this thing we got going on." "Yeah, Trudy, we're soul sisters. I mean spiritual sisters. No, I mean sacred sisters. You know what I mean, we're sacred soul sisters. Hey, I think I just made a poem. 'Sacred. Soul. Sisters.' We ought to perform that. We ought to perform your 'Yesterday' song and my 'Sacred Soul' poem on stage. You at the piano. Me at the mic."
"Then let's do it."
"Ok Trudy. That's a promise. I 'm going to produce the show myself. We'll call it 'Celebrating 25 Years of Friendship.' No, no, no. I got it. We'll call it: 'Sacred Soul Sisters: Celebrating 25 Years of Sisterhood.' Don't worry, I'll take care of everything."
"Pheralyn we've been saying for years we were going to do something together. We may as well do it now."
A few months later, in September of 2009, after many rehearsals and writing and allowing the spirit to move us, and banning Mr. C from the process and then allowing Mr. C to critique us, we took center stage at the Ethical Society on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, amongst a crowded room of family, friends and admirers. "Sacred Soul Sisters" was born. The collaboration came to life. What an amazing experience....and all from a simple late night phone call. It all started out with us reminiscing.
Love and Laughter: The Essence of Trudy Pitts
Talk about reminiscing. Yesterday, there was a ravishing full moon. It was the night of the lunar eclipse. I couldn't resist taking a moonlight jog. All the while I was running around St. Joe's track, I found myself reminiscing about all the fun times I've had with Trudy over these years. About how we laugh every time we get together. (We even laughed that day coming down the steps of Pinn Memorial Baptist Church, right after Sid Simmons' funeral.) And speaking about funeralsI remember how honored I was when Trudy entrusted me to write her mother's obituary, how I had it published in The Tribune.
When I think about Trudy, I think about how when we're with Mr. C, he always manages to find a way to treat us to something good to eat. Something forbidden and tasty and soulful. You knowsomething like fried chicken smothered in onions and gravy, with macaroni and cheese and collards on the side, and a gigantic slice of sweet potato pie with a dollop of whipped cream for dessert. Or that time he made that huge roast beef and brought it to the club, how he seasoned it with all that garlic the way he does, how he sliced it up so juicy and luscious.
Then there was the night of Trudy's spectacular performance on the pipe organ at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., with her sidemen, Greg Osby on alto and Mr. C on drums. Afterwards, at the hotel's restaurant, Mr. C ordered our dinners and got us started on our first round of drinks. Then he politely excused himself and went back to the room, so Trudy, L'Tanya and I could get our "girlfriend time" in. Lord, have mercy! We drank ourselves silly and closed the bar down that night. When I think about Trudy, I think about her warmth, her bright colors and bold outfits. When I think about Trudy, I think about her smile, her laugh, her verve for life, and how that verve translates into her dynamic art for living. What a blessing it is to have a bond so tight we both know we'll take each others' secrets to our graves.
Yeah, yesterday I whirled around during the middle of one of my laps, faced the moon, burst out laughing and kept running backwards, amused at how light I felt, tickled about how I was thinking about Trudy and laughing, and running, and admiring the wonders of the full moon. But that was yesterday.
Today, I was walking up Chestnut Street, window shopping, admiring all of the holiday displays, as I made my way to an appointment. I came upon a miniature baby grand piano, the centerpiece amidst an arrangement of several other tiny musical instruments. Immediately I thought how Trudy would love it, how it would make the perfect Christmas gift. And then I remembered how I didn't get a chance to give Trudy her Christmas gift last year, and won't be giving her a gift this year either. Because she's gone. She's passed away.
As I stood there, I thought back to right after she transitioned, when I stayed up all night writing her obituary, praying for the right words to come. I didn't know what to say, but after a while, I got into the flowjust wrote honestly about her life. I assuaged my grief by relaying some of the information she had shared with me through the years:
Child Prodigy: The Early Years
Coming from a musical family, Trudy began formal musical studies at the age of six. With her mother's encouragement, she prepared for a career as a classical pianist. As a child, she applied herself with an uncommon rigor and discipline, a rigor and discipline that were to become the hallmark of her creative process. She has said, "When it comes to this music, I always aspire for excellence."
Raised in South Philadelphia's Shiloh Baptist Church, Trudy learned to play the organ and reached an advanced stage of proficiency by the time she was ten. She played for the Sunday School and accompanied the Senior Choir, prior to becoming a sought after choir director. After graduating from John Bartram High School, she completed her bachelor's degree at the Philadelphia Musical Academy, which has since merged with the University of the Arts. She continued her graduate studies in classical music at the prestigious Julliard School. She completed additional graduate studies at the Connecticut College for Women and Temple University.
Virtuoso: The Complete Musician
An unparalleled pianist and Hammond B-3 organ innovator, Dr. Gertrude Elizabeth Pitts Carney, affectionately known as "Trudy Pitts," distinguished herself as a "complete musician," during a career that spanned 70 years. The fourth child of Ida and John Pitts, she was born in Philadelphia on August 10, 1932 and passed away on December 19, 2010, just weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Fluent in jazz, classical, blues, pop and sacred music, she possessed the kind of down to earth mother wit and effervescent magnetism that endeared her to family, friends and fans. Her laughter was just as magical as her music and her cheerful mantra, "Bright Moments!" She left a profound imprint as a world-renowned performer, composer, arranger, vocalist and educator. Trudy's passing marks the end of an era in Philadelphia's celebrated jazz history.
Yeah, that's my girl. Trudy Pitts. Even though we communicate viscerally on an ethereal level, I just can't dial Trudy up on the phone or send her a text message. I won't be sitting front and center at one of her concerts ever again. As I looked through the glass, focusing on every detail of the miniature piano, I paid full attention to my thoughts about Trudy not being here anymore.
And then I cried.
Couldn't stop the tears from rolling down my face. I just kept repeating to myself: "I love you Trudy and I miss you. Girl, I sure miss you." I continued to fix my gaze on the tiny grand piano. And then I really cried. I had no idea I was going to start bawling like this. Glad nobody's around. Glad I'm all by myself because I wouldn't want to bring anybody else down. But I'm not apologizing for my tears. If they want to come, then they can just come. Now I have my tissue out, blowing my nose in public.
I have no shame. I am standing all alone on Chestnut Street, crying profusely. Yet even though I am stricken, right on the edge of my conscious mind, I become aware that I am pleading with my tears. I hear the dialogue in my head: "You're going into a meeting! They'll be expecting you to be professional. And cheerful as usual. Pull yourself together, Pheralyn." And then more tears, more blowing my nose, more crying out loud, more talking out loud: "I love you Trudy. I miss you Girlfriend." Yeah, Girl. Yesterday I laughed. But today? Today, I just broke down and cried.
Pages 1, 3: Courtesy of Trudy Pitts
Page 2: Courtesy of Lifeline Music Coalition
Page 4: Ben Johnson