Trudy Pitts, a classically trained pianist who became a prominent jazz organist and an important music educator in Philadelphia, died there on Dec. 19. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Pitts was 78.
Pitts was something of an anomaly in the organ-jazz tradition that found a natural home in Philadelphia in the middle of the 20th century. One of jazz’s most populist and accessible schools, organ jazz had much to do with machismo and intuition: Drenched in the blues and gospel, organ trios became the jazz equivalent of rock ‘n’ roll bar bands with their danceable swing and rousing displays of chops. On paper, Pitts probably shouldn’t have excelled in the idiom like she did. As Chris Kelsey reported in his 2007 Overdue Ovation, Pitts started on piano at age 6, eventually studying to become a concert pianist at Juilliard. She hadn’t played much jazz or, for that matter, B3 organ when she was considered to replace Shirley Scott in a group led by drummer Bill “Mr. C” Carney, whom Pitts would marry in 1958, three years after they met. But by the time she signed with the Prestige label and issued a string of LPs in 1967 and ’68, her mastery of the Hammond B3 was indisputable, and her sound was a thing apart from other Philly-born or -based organ greats, among them Scott, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland.
Dust off Introducing the Fabulous Trudy Pitts and bear witness. With guitarist Pat Martino and Carney in tow, she cooks on Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” and a version of “It Was a Very Good Year” whose swing snowballs in urgency and intensity. On “Steppin’ in Minor,” also released as a 45, she simmers through one lyrically soulful chorus after another. Pitts’ flowing touch belied her classical training but didn’t impede the requisite blues sensibility in her playing, and, unlike so many of her peers, she didn’t overplay. For jazz-piano fans who think they don’t dig organ, she might be an excellent introduction. She tended not to overindulge in the Hammond’s idiomatic elements; in other words, static-chord squalling is thankfully less prevalent.
Introducing‘s follow-up, These Blues of Mine, showcased Pitts as a player as well as a competent singer, taking her colorful vibrato to pop and rock hits like “Eleanor Rigby” and “The House of the Rising Sun.” But those covers aren’t the record’s highlight: An instrumental take on another pop staple, Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” flaunts a groove so buoyant and fun you can only imagine how many packed bars it brought alive. As a sideperson Pitts played on Martino’s 1967 debut as a leader, El Hombre (Prestige), now part of the jazz-guitar canon, and recorded with Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Pitts appeared on the saxophonist’s ambitiously arranged Other Folks’ Music, contributing a composition, “Anysha,” and playing acoustic and electric piano. And on his Warner Bros. debut, Return of the 5000 Lb. Man, Pitts (on organ) and Mr. C bolstered Kirk through Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Extra material from Return was used on Kirk’s next release, Kirkatron, and Pitts played organ on an arrangement of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song.”
Despite not recording for name labels after those Kirk dates in the mid-’70s, Pitts stayed active on organ and piano, and became a mentor figure in Philadelphia and an adjunct associate professor at the city’s University of the Arts, where she began teaching in 1991. She also performed regularly with her long-standing personal and musical partner, Mr. C, releasing a live trio recording from an SFJAZZ gig on the Doodlin’ label in 2007.
For the 2006 compilation Pianadelphia (Turtle), Pitts recorded a version of “Naima” on the 88s that is stunning in its rhapsodic, classically tinged gentility; laying it side-by-side with fellow Philadelphian McCoy Tyner’s typically clangorous version from 2009’s Solo (Half Note) makes for a stunning comparison.
Speaking on the phone earlier today from his home in Philadelphia, Pat Martino remembered Pitts as both player and person. When asked how Pitts’ conservatory training was evident in her technique, he recalled “her facility regarding time signatures, to be able to play in 7/4 or 9/4 or 11/8, or any of these odd time signatures, at a very early date.
“This was in the ’60s,” he continued, “[and] she was writing compositions of that nature.” (Pitts composed “Count Nine,” in 9/4, for 1967’s These Blues of Mine.)
The guitarist also commented on the profundity of the relationship Pitts and Carney shared, in their personal as well as musical lives. “When you ask a question like, ‘How was Trudy as a person?'” he said, “you’re asking, ‘How were both of them together?’ whether you know it or you don’t. Because they were always together, and I’m sure they still are, in many ways.”
And, referring to their enduring trio: “When they brought in a new member, that new member had to learn them.” Martino reflected that joining their group in the ’60s, when he was a competitive, ambitious young player, taught him an important lesson in selflessness and accommodation.
In 2006, Pitts became the first jazz artist to play the Dobson pipe organ at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. To read more about that and Pitts’ life and work, check out Chris Kelsey’s Overdue Ovation. Also be sure and check out the recent tribute piece by JT contributor David R. Adler in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
According to the Inquirer, Pitts is survived by Carney and their son and daughter. In a digital biography produced by Slife Productions, Pitts recalled the difficulties of being a parent and a working musician simultaneously. “I was an old-fashioned mother and an artist, and that presented me with quite a few problems,” she said.
“But it was good because it helped me to be able to be multi-faceted. … I think I’ve been an extraordinary mother.”