Growing Up in a Musical Family
Willis Pittman and the Jazz Ambassadors – The Owner’s Story
As a musician growing up I was fortunate to be blessed with a unique resource. My father was a jazz saxophonist, and to this day I often pull from the knowledge I gained from our conversations we had about music. Oddly, I found it most peculiar that he got smarter as I got older; but the artists my father exposed me to when I was knee deep into my British Invasion were the likes of Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Colman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Nat Cole, Wes Montgomery, and the Lionel Hamptons of the jazz world who have been treated very kindly by music historians.
Imagine a 12 year old boy on a Friday evening, encircled by all the families on our street as they jubilantly attended the big neighborhood event; the rehearsal of my dad’s band, The Jazz Ambassadors. The neighborhood seemed to come alive, as all were excited to experience the wonderment of great jazz being played at close range.
The house was always electric with excitement when my dad’s band was in our living room—just imagine three saxes, and a rhythm section, in tight quarters, no different than the jazz clubs you would find in Washington, D.C. I have to say that although some neighbors possessed newer cars, and fancier possessions, no one out ranked my dad in cool; he was a true professional jazz musician who really played. I promise you it was, indeed, infectious, and I believe the core reason I became a musician. When I am asked to name the first concert I ever attended, I always refer to my dad’s band.
My first job in the music business actually was as a roadie for my father (I was around ten). He would summon me to carry his saxes to the car before he left for his gigs. My favorite memory is of one summer when our family was staying at a beach cottage on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The cottage was part of my father’s compensation for playing shows at the club house. After I had a hard day of beach play and a good dinner, my father would give me the nod to tote his saxes to the dock. I would carefully place them in his wooden Chris-Craft speedboat, and as the evening rolled in across the bay, my father motor-boated out to his jazz gig, looking like a Hollywood star in his tux.
The next late night sound I would hear would be the speed boat returning to the dock, and the screen door creaking as he came home from his gig, honoring our tradition of bringing home a bag of little hamburgers for my breakfast. He never faltered from that ritual.
Add to my father’s love of music and his incredible knowledge of jazz history, the fact that my brother enlightened me when I was sixteen with the James Brown album Live at the Apollo. At the same time he showed me his brand new chrome Ludwig snare drum. Between those two events, I was empowered with exposure to the funk, and my drumming style was changed forever. You could say I was hooked for life.
I also was tremendously influenced by my sister’s love of folk music. She was a dedicated Kingston Trio fan. Listening to this group greatly influenced my understanding of melody, harmony, and storytelling lyrics. It also made for great story swapping with Greg Deering (Deering Banjo’s) when he visited CMC.
But here’s where the family story really gets fun and comes full circle. My daughter and I attended a NAMM -hosted music advocacy dinner in Washington, D.C., and Deanna Brown Thomas (James Brown daughter) was also in attendance. I had the opportunity to introduce my daughter to James Brown’s daughter. To me that says it all. The gift of music passed from generation to generation to generation.
Music is a gift for everyone, and we all can share it together. The music community itself is a family rich in traditions and welcoming of all. We invite everyone to come out to experience live music performed in @4410. Better yet, come and play with us. It might change and enrich your life forever.