by Cesca Janece Waterfield
After 50 Years, Concert Pianist James Pettis is Breaking Ground Again
Where you’ve heard him: Recipient of an NAACP Freedom Award, James plays piano for many official city and state events. He appeared numerous times on the long-running CBS soap opera, “Guiding Light.” He’s accompanied James Earl Jones and played for photographer, journalist and film director, Gordon Parks. He was recently honored in Detroit as the recipient of the E. Azalia Hackley Award and filled auditoriums in both the Motor City and Chicago. Sitting before his piano at home in Northside, James recalls with a resonant laugh, “As I entered the front door, every floor that I went on, I saw my poster. It was a mind-blowing experience. It was packed and it went over quite well.” Last October at the Henrico Theatre, he celebrated the 50th Anniversary of his public debut.
Overture: The son of Estelle and James Pettis Sr., James was a protégé, stunning teachers with his natural abilities in piano. At only 5 years old, he began studying with pianist Janie P. Hill. Then he met who he calls his “single greatest musical inspiration:” Dr. Undine Moore of Virginia State University. As a teen, he won many piano competitions, including one at Virginia State University while he was still a student at Armstrong High School. Each summer during high school, he studied at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. After graduating high school in 1968, he was awarded a scholarship to The Juilliard School in New York City and studied under internationally renowned pianist, Eugene List, graduating in 1973.
In fine company: James holds the distinction of being the first African American concert pianist invited to perform on the Queen Elizabeth II. “After you ate dinner in your tux, you came to hear Jim Pettis,” he recalls.“I did that three days and three nights aweek for two years.” Although Duke Ellington and Count Basie had both accepted earlier invitations to perform with their orchestras onboard the famed cruise ship, James was the first African American solo artist invited.
Jet-setter: “Then in the 70s and 80s, I did a lot of performing in Paris, London, Stockholm, Copenhagen. I was mesmerized by seeing all of the famous people such as Jackie Onassis. I played for Robert and James Earl Jones. Gordon Parks, I gave the world premiere of his piano concerto. Gloria Vanderbilt was there because Parks was dating her. Truman Capote was there.”
Passing it on: Although James is in great demand as a performer, he makes time to teach. He’s an instructor with the Richmond Dept. of Parks, Recreation and Community Facilities and he also offers private lessons. “My methodology is different from others,” he explains. “I will take you through a step-by-step process, starting from the black keys only and the right hand only to the advanced composition. After three minutes of instruction, you’ll be able to play. I have a passion for teaching piano to those who are interested.”
His new show: James was recently asked by PBS Television to develop a series of instructional programs for piano. He explains: “The title is ‘Piano 101’. It’s basically a half hour weekly show in 13 parts. I’m going to develop that. I’m going to copyright it and get a distributor. But I’m going to control my art. In other words, I’m going to control my destiny. It should be ready around June. I’m going to sell the DVDs and the whole works.”
Pointers from Pettis: “Self taught is the worst teacher you can have. What constitutes a great teacher? A great teacher number one inspires you but
[provides] discipline as well. There is no substitute for practice. Stay on course. Be goal-oriented. There’s an old Negro spiritual that says ‘Keep your eyes on the prize.’ I would say, be goal oriented, practice, go to concerts, and keep your eyes
on the prize.”
Still learning: “Ignore anyone who says they have a finished technique. That means they have stopped studying. There’s no such thing as a finished art. Every year as I play the Lord’s Prayer, I find something I can add. “
Number one fan: Although his father has since passed, his mother Estelle remains one of his most ardent fans. “She’s still proud of me. She’s my social secretary,”
Dr. Undine Moore, the Dean of Black Women Composers
She was Music Laureate of Virginia in 1977. About Petersburg, she said: “To live in a society where one’s favorite art is highly regarded, highly valued, where one’s progress is a source of pride to the family and the entire community is enough to create in a child a fine sense of self-worth and a high level of aspiration.” She gave special praise to the women of Petersburg for cultivating a cultural life in the city and for ultimately, encouraging her love of music.
The world renowned composer was a teacher at Virginia State University from 1927 to 1972. She also taught at Virginia Union University in the 70s. James Pettis, an internationally respected concert pianist who grew up in Richmond, calls Dr. Undine Moore his “single greatest musical inspiration” and remembers, “Undine Moore was an international figure. She had works performed all over the world.”
Undine Smith began musical training in her hometown of Petersburg, where she moved with parents James William Smith and Hardie Turnbull Smith in 1911, when Undine was four. Three years later, she began piano lessons with Lillian Allen Darden. Her talent was evident, and when Undine was a teen, she won a scholarship from the Juilliard Graduate School to study music at Fisk University, where she first started composing. She would become known as the “Dean of Black Women Composers,” since she artfully implemented African American experiences, figures and culture into her compositions. Best known for her choral works, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for “Scenes from the Life of a Martyr,” based on the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
She graduated Fisk cum laude in 1926 and became supervisor of music in the Goldsboro, North Carolina, public schools. A year later, she began teaching at Virginia State, where she would stay for nearly 50 years later. Committed to her education, she commuted to New York during the years of 1929 to 1931 to study for her Master of Arts degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Around this time, she married Dr. James Arthur Moore. Three years later, they had a daughter.
Dr. Smith Moore won numerous awards, including the National Association of Negro Musicians Distinguished Achievement Award in 1975 and the Virginia Governor’s Award in the Arts in 1985. She died in Petersburg in 1989.