Christopher Pitts sat in a hotel room one night when he moved to Indianapolis in 2017. He remembers reading an article on the history of Indiana Avenue. He learned about the communities, their significance, and the music. It was a history he didn’t know much about.
Four years later he is a staple on the Indy jazz scene hoping to contribute, “meaningful, thoughtful music that uplifts and connects with people in the same tradition that has been done for years,” he says.
True to his word, as a featured artist for this year’s Art & Soul, his trio, including frequent collaborators Nick Tucker (bass) and Carrington Clinton (drums), is performing songs by Indianapolis composers and innovators, Carl Perkins and Buddy Montgomery, along with original compositions.
Others artists highlighted by Art & Soul include guitarist Yadin Kol singer AshLee "Psywryn Simone" Baskin, and visual artist Matthew Cooper.
The bridge between musicians’ past and present is central to Pitts’ evolution as a jazz pianist. “By studying and learning from [the giants of the past] I start to develop a certain language and understanding of the music that they had, which was definitely unique,” he says. “By honoring them and learning from what they did I believe that helps me contribute something new and informed when creating my own music.”
Pitts can be heard all over Indy’s music scene. He plays McGowan Hall for First Fridays, appeared regularly at the Chatterbox, and plays with Clint Breeze & The Groove while working to develop his jazz trio. In his time in the city, he has grown to appreciate the textured sounds and the chance to be heard.
One aspect he embraces is the individuality of the artists and their sound. “Everyone has style and character and when we all blend and mix and match there is some truly unique musical output,” says Pitts. “Just speaking from my experience with Clint Breeze & The Groove, everyone in that band has very unique tastes, but together we have distilled our voices. We are starting to develop a new sound and that’s exciting, but that goes for all the bands I see on the scene.”
While Pitts venerates the jazz greats of the past, his overall influences are eclectic, as he told NUVO’s Seth Johnson in 2019. “It kind of came out of nowhere I guess,” he said. “I started very young, listening to classical, and didn’t really play. And, then, I kind of grew up on a hip-hop/R&B/oldies diet, like Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. I’ve always wanted to play piano. I heard this [song] on a TV show or something. It was a blues-type piano thing, and I was like, “Man, I want to play like that.”
Pitts got his first piano when he was in his last year of high school. “I couldn’t get up,” he said, laughing. “I was [playing] like eight hours a day. Eventually, I got into lessons for a little bit during the summer, and he introduced me to the blues and Chick Corea. And then, from Chick Corea, I found Thelonious Monk and kept diving in deeper and deeper.”
Pitts went to college at Atlanta’s Mercer University, and started playing with the jazz program there.
"I’ve just never looked back,” he said. “It’s really compulsive, and it’s something I really enjoy. But I guess [I like] the connectedness to the roots, so real American music and the passion of using things that happen in the moment to tell the story. I love that part about it.”
While Pitts was unaware of the Indy jazz scene scene a scant five years ago, he certainly recognizes its direction today. The originality of its artists, the positivity in the music community, and the efforts to showcase and encourage musicians makes for a bright future in Pitts’ eyes.
“I think there is a Naptown Sound and I think it’s beginning to blossom into something much bigger and broader,” he says. “I’m excited to see things resume development as the pandemic cools down and the arts heat back up. I think we are on the verge of a renaissance as long the city continues to recognize how important artists are for the community.”
It’s fitting when Pitts says the themes for his Art & Soul performance are connection and community. In his conceptualization of the performance, he considered how we can use history to guide our present and direct our future. His reverence for those musicians who came before him moves well beyond a few standards. “I don’t just mean playing old tunes to highlight the past,” he says, “I mean building and innovating on what has been done to create something truly unique.”
As in every stage of his musical development, Art & Soul encourages Pitts to grow. He says the goal is always the same. “I expect to raise the bar for my art and think about the impact it can have on others,” he says.
Pitts is no longer a stranger to the tradition of jazz in the city. It seems appropriate that he has the opportunity to reflect on that history and play on the Artsgarden stage. Pitts says the preparation for the event remains inspiring and humbling.
“It challenged me to think of how I could connect to others by taking a look back at where we came from in music and as a society,” he says. “Being a featured artist puts me in the ranks of 25 years’ worth of Black excellence and talent in this city and I will never take that for granted.”
Pitts has a vision for music in Indianapolis. He holds a respect for those that have played before him, lending their own artistic interpretations and legacies. He’s traveled a long way from perusing an article on Indiana Ave to a performance intended to carry its light. And his wish for every show is simple and sincere.
“The best compliment I ever received was our music uplifted someone,” he says. “If I can inspire just one person to feel uplifted then I’m happy with the performance because I know they will take that and pass it on to others. Nothing’s going to move you like art and we have to hold on to that.”