Duke Performances Residency Brings Jazz Pianist Chris Pattishall Home

This article was originally published on the Duke Performances blog
Chris Pattishall plays selections from his album “Zodiac” for students at Durham School of the Arts. Click to read more.

Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Chris Pattishall returned to Durham, his hometown, as part of a yearlong residency with Duke Performances. His visit culminated in the world premiere of his debut album, Zodiac, an expansive interpretation of jazz legend Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite.

Born and raised in Durham, North Carolina, Chris Pattishall began his music-making journey at age eight, when his parents gifted him a Casio keyboard and enrolled him in five years’ worth of compulsory piano lessons. By his teenage years, he had blossomed into a sought-after jazz pianist, playing shows at venues across the Triangle and even embarking on his first tour.

At some point during his prodigious rise, Pattishall learned about the legendary jazz pianist, arranger, and composer Mary Lou Williams. It would have been impossible to shirk Williams’ influence on both Durham and jazz history: She was the first artist-in-residence at Duke University and director of the Duke Jazz Ensemble, a mentor and teacher to the likes of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie, and one of the first female musicians to find success in the genre. But his knowledge of her life and work, he admits, was “the SparkNotes version.”

That is, until he heard one of her arrangements on a whim.

“I had just moved to New York City and was driving around when I heard a version of Mary Lou Williams’ ‘Cancer’ on the radio. It wasn’t her version — I don’t even remember whose it was — but that piece was so beautiful,” Pattishall said. “When I discovered that it was from her album Zodiac Suite, I knew I needed to check it out.”

He made quick work of Zodiac Suite — a series of portraits of Williams’ musician friends from each sign of the zodiac — shortly thereafter, meticulously transcribing the entire album multiple times and, with the help of his own musician friends, eventually developing it into his new interpretive album, ZodiacA commission by Duke Performances, made possible, in part, with support from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, brought the project home — figuratively and literally.

Pattishall visits with students at North Carolina Central University. Photo by Nina Wilder.

Pattishall shared this glimpse into his experiences with Mary Lou Williams’ work with students at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) earlier this month as part of a yearlong Duke Performances residency — the first segment of which kicked off in-person on November 1 with a two-day visit to the Durham School of the Arts (DSA). The residency culminated in the world premiere performances of Zodiac on November 5 and 6.

That most of Pattishall’s residency engagements were centered around educational spaces is no coincidence. Later in his conversation with the students at NCCU, he emphasized the value of the mentorship to his career, as well as the importance of paying that support forward.

“A big takeaway from my experience with Mary Lou Williams has been the significance of community.”

“A big takeaway from my experience with Mary Lou Williams has been the significance of community. She was not only a teacher, but a caretaker; even amid her own hardships, she was still looking out for her community, whether it was blood family, or the family of musicians that she made across the world.”

Pattishall continued: “I think a lot about how important my experiences growing up in Durham were; I think back on the amount of patience and generosity and support that I’ve gotten throughout my life. To be able to give that energy back continually motivates me.”

Pattishall performing “Zodiac” at the von der Heyden Studio Theater in the Duke Rubenstein Arts Center on November 5. The performance featured sound design from experimental guitarist and composer Rafiq Bhatia and video projections by artist Kim Alpert. Photo by Alex Boerner.

During his visits to DSA, Pattishall played selections from Zodiac for the high school-level wind ensemble class and spent time with students in the school’s Jazz Combo and Jazz Stage bands. He gave them an overview of Williams’ legacy, touching on her roles as both a musician and a mentor.

“We were very fortunate to have someone like her become a part of our community, and to lay down such a rich legacy,” he said. “I feel so inspired by her, and I’m hoping that as you listen to her music and learn about her life, you’ll hear things that inspire you too.”

Pattishall will return to Durham this spring to continue his yearlong residency with Duke Performances. On February 11, Pattishall will perform on Duke’s campus with the Duke Jazz Ensemble, working closely with the ensemble’s Associate Director Evan Roberson and Vice Provost for the Arts John Brown. He’ll also reconnect with high school students in the band program at Durham School of the Arts, working with them on new arrangements of Williams’ compositions. Pattishall’s residency will culminate in a performance later this spring featuring the DSA students alongside Pattishall and a selection of musicians from Durham’s vibrant jazz scene.

Along every stop of Pattishall’s visit to Durham, it was clear that the students and community members in attendance delighted to hear him speak so passionately and respectfully about Mary Lou Williams. But there were perhaps no deeper moments of awe than when Pattishall would finally move over to the piano and let her music — and his reverential interpretation of it — speak for itself. It’s especially impressive that an album first recorded in 1945 has maintained relevance throughout the last seven decades, but that’s a testament to not only Williams’ artistry, but her prescience in capturing an enduring fascination: the zodiac.

At NCCU, after plucking out the moody melody of “Pisces,” Pattishall turned to the crowd to ask which selection he should play next.

A call came from the back of the room: “Play ‘Virgo’! That’s my sign!”

Nina Wilder is a 2020 Duke English graduate from Raleigh, N.C. and the current arts administration fellow at Duke Arts. As a student, Nina was the editor of The Chronicle’s arts & culture section, Recess.