Jazz Organ Classics
by Jason Gubbels | April 5, 2013
Although the Hammond organ has never threatened the piano’s centrality to modern jazz, fans of the instrument point with pride to a blistering and groovy period of the 1960s in which electric-organ virtuosos crashed the national stage. Always looked at slightly askance by their acoustic peers, organists found themselves relegated to the “soul jazz” or even R&B racks by high priests worried about where all that electricity might lead. But B-3 adepts have had the last laugh, as the deep funk they created in the mid-'60s became a high-priced commodity for later generations seeking the perfect beats to sample.
Before the arrival of the Hammond organ the mid-1930s, jazz performers had wrestled with cumbersome non-electric instruments. Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong were backed by Fred Longshaw on harmonium for 1925’s “St. Louis Blues,” while pianist Fats Waller adapted stride and ragtime techniques for pipe organ on a series of solo recordings from the late 1920s. When the Hammond organ appeared in 1935, it was marketed to radio stations and houses of worship as a cheaper alternative to the pipe organ, but jazz players soon warmed to its possibilities. Some, like Count Basie, were dabblers who rarely recorded on the instrument (1952’s “Basie Beat”). But others switched over full-time, like Milt Buckner or, most notably, Wild Bill Davis, who left a successful stay with Louis Jordan to expand the new instrument’s capabilities via big-band swing. (Davis would be replaced in Jordan’s Tympani Five by organist Bill Doggett, who went on to carve out his own career in R&B.)
But it was Jimmy Smith who would create the Hammond B-3 vocabulary. Equally versed in R&B and modern jazz, Smith set about mastering the instrument’s complex technology (notably drawbars and pedals) while also basing his improvisational approach on horn players rather than pianists, thus showcasing the organ’s unique capacity for sustained notes. In dozens of sessions recorded for Blue Note in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Smith helped create a sub-market for organ jazz, which soon exploded thanks to notable followers Jimmy McGriff, John Patton, Charles Earland, Jack McDuff and Shirley Scott.
As the '60s came to an end, the Hammond found itself overthrown by such emerging technologies as the Fender Rhodes and synthesizers. But even as crate diggers were enthusiastically rediscovering organ jazz’s beats and grooves (Smith’s 1972 live track “Root Down [And Get It]” would be sampled by the Beastie Boys in 1994), starting in the 1990s a new generation of players (Joey DeFrancesco, Larry Goldings, Barbara Dennerlein, and post-modern outfit Medeski, Martin & Wood) has helped ensure the instrument will remain a constant, if peripheral, presence on the jazz scene. Here's a sampling of the Hammond organ's finest hours.