The recent passing of Philly-based pianist and organist Trudy Pitts and pop/funk diva Teena Marie stunned their fans and encouraged reflection. At first glance, one might ask what could these artists have in common? Yet each has been noted for how they used their musical talents to break through social barriers for female musicians.
Trudy Pitts, called by some the Godmother of Philly Jazz, was an accomplished pianist and organist who met head on the challenges of being an “on the road” musician and dedicated mother. Beginning with her classical studies in childhood as an anchor, Ms. Pitts’ musical journey would take her ultimately into jazz, in which she became a leading Hammond B-3 master of the star-studded Philly school. If you take time and listen to the clips below, you can get a sense for what made her special: the soulful, judiciously placed blues licks, the ever so crafty way of shaping a song’s emotional wave, the perfect harmonic sense (she played as if she invented the passing chord!) in improvised settings, and that infectious way in which she embodied the joy of living during a performance. If jazz is reportedly “a man’s world,” we should be happy that Trudy ignored the hype and shattered that glass ceiling with talent, dedication, and heart.
Teena Marie’s reputation as “the first white artist signed by Motown,” doesn’t begin to explain why her fans loved her work, although its routinely how she’s been described since her untimely passing. Her moniker “the Ivory Queen of Soul” captures this sentiment. I recently spoke to Audie Cornish on NPR’s All Things Considered about the singer’s work and stressed that Ms. Marie was just one of a long line of white musicians who commanded the language of soul—ergo, the delightful term “blue-eyed soul.” What is perhaps singular about her rise, however, is the historical moment in which she came to the public’s attention. Buttressed between the edges of funk-era Black Consciousness and big corporate record companies selling “blackness,” she catapulted from the late 1970s and into the ‘80s with hit after hit in a variety of styles: funk, smooth jazz, pop, and soul ballad. In each of these settings, Marie showcased her signature robust and full-throated chest voice, the falsetto flip-sigh, an extremely high range as a clever design element, well-seasoned, “stinky” declamatory riffs between phrases, and background vocals as tight as the Emotions. In my neighbor we called that “soul,” and nobody cared about racial phenotype; we just delighted in its masterful execution. As Teena Marie explained once to an interviewer focusing on her “whiteness” in the industry: “I’m just being me.” And gave all of her “me” in energetic after enthusiastic performance.
Here’s to two remarkable women who left their individual marks on the music world, an industry whose pedestrian views about race and gender often serve to limit our full appreciation of an artist’s contributions. They both did their part with style.
Deep Groove: Trudy Pitts laying down the law in a performance of “Amazing Grace”
Teena Marie’s “I Need Your Lovin'”: all up in the pocket in this tight rhythm track