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Standout of local jazz greats

When organist and pianist Trudy Pitts Carney died Sunday, Dec. 19, of cancer at age 78, Philadelphia lost a vital part of its storied musical heritage.

When organist and pianist Trudy Pitts Carney died Sunday, Dec. 19, of cancer at age 78, Philadelphia lost a vital part of its storied musical heritage.

For up-and-coming jazz musicians, it means one less point of contact with "old Philadelphia" - the term pianist Orrin Evans uses for a fading system of mentorship, in which players were taught to master the tradition, but to find their own voice.

Evans speaks of Pitts as practically his aunt. For veteran Philly organist "Papa John" DeFrancesco, the father of organist Joey DeFrancesco, the loss is also painful and immediate.

"I played [Sunday] and dedicated the day to her," "Papa John" said via phone. "It was rough. She was part of my family. We spent Christmases together. I loved her with all my heart."

Along with her husband, drummer Bill Carney (better known as "Mr. C"), Pitts reigned as a local legend, respected teacher, and role model.

Uri Caine, another renowned Philly-born pianist, remembered crossing paths with Pitts at a Clef Club memorial Oct. 11 for drummer Hakiem Emanuel Thompson. In attendance was the ailing Sid Simmons - another pianist and Philly stalwart, who died shortly thereafter, on Nov. 5.

"It's been a bad year for this generation of Philly musicians," Caine remarked by phone. He also cited the recent death of bassist Ed Crockett.

"Trudy was important to the life of the city," Caine said, "an encouraging and positive force."

Though she appeared often as an acoustic pianist, Pitts was best known as a pioneer of organ trio jazz. Like the late Shirley Scott, she was an outstanding woman in a field dominated by men (organists Jimmy Smith, Don Patterson, and Charles Earland among them).

El Hombre, a 1967 album by guitarist Pat Martino and a classic of the organ jazz genre, captures Pitts' inimitable style on the Hammond B-3, sensitive yet furiously driving.

According to Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux, coauthors of the 2009 book Jazz, organ jazz "helped to sustain a strong popular audience for jazz in black communities of the 1950s and 1960s. . . . The music was brash, bluesy, lean, and rocking, and it became ubiquitous in urban bars around the country, whether it was live or on jukeboxes."

Philadelphia's status as a capital city of soul owes as much to Trudy Pitts and her jazz colleagues as it does to Gamble & Huff.

Yet Pitts' contributions are more varied than the narrow organ jazz or soul jazz labels would suggest. As Caine points out, Pitts was "interested in a lot of different music, and she was very open-minded."

One of Pitts' most distinguished performances, on piano, is with Rahsaan Roland Kirk on the 1976 album Other Folk's Music. It includes her flowing composition "Anysha," named for her daughter and scored for cello, harp, flute, and other instruments.

Orrin Evans performed two different trio versions of "Anysha" on his 2001 album Blessed Ones, slowing the piece somewhat and lending it a ghostly aura. It's hard to imagine a more fitting epitaph.

In September 2006, Pitts became the first jazz musician to perform on the Kimmel Center's 32-ton Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ. Following Pitts' example, in August 2007, German jazz organist Barbara Dennerlein came to Philly to put the Cooper organ, and herself, to the test.

It had to have been tough for a European artist to visit Philly, the historical heart of organ jazz, and to play for one of the music's creators. During her set, Dennerlein took a moment to call attention to Pitts, who was in the audience. As the applause rose and Pitts acknowledged it humbly, it seemed clear enough we were in the presence of a queen.

Pitts returned to the Kimmel Center in April for a Jazz Organ Jam with fellow headliners Joey DeFrancesco, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and John Medeski. "Papa John" was in attendance, and it was the last time he saw Trudy Pitts.

"We had a great time, clowning, laughing," he recalled. When asked about the music itself, he resorted naturally to the present tense: "Watching her play is just ridiculous. She can do it all."