The Jefferson Center and the Harrison Museum of African American Culture have announced that they will open an arts exhibit celebrating one of the most extraordinary and innovative jazz pianists and composers of the 20th century, Roanoke’s native son Don Pullen.
The exhibit honoring the life and work of Don Pullen officially opened at the Jefferson Center on December 16th. The exhibit will remain open to the public through the Don Pullen Tribute Concert on January 14th.
Pullen was born in Roanoke on Christmas day 1941 to a musical family. His father played guitar and tap danced, his mother was the choir director at her church and Pullen’s inspiration on piano came from his cousin, Clyde “Fats” Wright; Pullen’s childhood home was filled with music. Although the family did not have a record player and there was no local radio station that played “black” music, the Pullen family made their own music, constantly singing in the house.
Pullen sang in his elementary school choir at Harrison Elementary. In 5th grade, around the age of 10, he began piano lessons. Along with classical training, he played blues, rhythm & blues and played for local church choirs, including his mother’s church, Sweet Union Baptist.
While he was attending Booker T. Washington Jr. H.S. Pullen co-led a band with saxophonist and best friend Byron Morris. Later, while attending Lucy Addison High School he also played for the high school choir.
Pullen attended Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina on an academic scholarship, intending to become a doctor. However, soon after his arrival John Holloway, a local music teacher and bandleader, invited him to join his band; an experience that allowed him to learn many of the jazz standards at the time and otherwise broaden his musical scope. It was during this experience that Pullen became aware of the music of Ellington, Miles Davis and many other jazz giants.
Pullen’s attention soon shifted from medicine back to his calling in music. After college he went to Chicago for two important weeks with Lenny Martin, a gifted bassist from Roanoke who had introduced him to the music of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. While in Chicago he met Muhal Richard Abrams and in that short time Muhal affirmed his playing and gave him the confidence to continue in the musical direction he had begun to develop.
From Chicago, Pullen’s travels led him to New York, where he was soon introduced to avant-garde saxophonist Guiseppi Logan with whom he would record two albums, along with drummer Milford Graves. Pullen and Milford Graves then formed a duo, recording two self-produced/distributed albums on the SLP (Self-Reliance Program) label, the first album having hand-painted covers by the duo, which remain collector’s items to this day. He and Milford also often created music for the plays of Amiri Baraka (Leroy Jones) in the exciting atmosphere of
the Black Arts Theater in Harlem.
In addition to piano, Pullen played a Hammond B-3 organ as he led the R & B house bands in singers’ clubs throughout the area. He was an arranger for King Records and worked with artists such as Arthur Prysock, Ruth Brown, Big Maybelle, Irene Reid,
Jimmy Rushing, and played with Nina Simone. Pullen played organ on three albums for alto saxophonist Charles Williams, which featured several of his compositions, including the title track on “Trees & Grass & Things.” He also appeared at times with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
The Jefferson Center exhibit includes paintings, photographs highlighting Pullen’s childhood years in Roanoke and his performances as a touring musician, a video documentary featuring Pullen, as well as letters of support from Pullen’s family, friends and fans collected during a movement in New York City to memorialize the late jazz great.