I know the saxophone is usually considered the quintessential instrumental voice of jazz. The instrument has become virtually synonymous with the music, like the guitar with the blues or the violin with symphonic music. But for my money the essential jazzy instrument is the electric organ—the Hammond B3 to be precise.
Sure, purists would contend it is not a true jazz instrument at all. And the style of jazz (soul/acid) it has become so identified with is not ‘true jazz’. But who really cares about purists in any walk of life. Fundamentalists, be they religious or musical, are mostly bores.
Invented in Chicago as a means to recreate the sounds of the pipe organ, the Hammond Organ Company’s ‘B3’ model immediately found its audience. Churches, bands, nightclubs and skating rinks that had limited cash reserves but wanted to create a big sound discovered in the instrument’s double keyboards, valves and pedals an entire universe of sound. You could play individual notes and chords at the same time, while keeping the rhythm section driving by working the pedals hard. And then you had 9 valves to play with that shaded the notes in different ways depending on how far you pulled them out. That phrase, ‘pulling out all the stops’? Comes from the masters of the Hammond B3, like Jimmy Smith, who literally rode their instruments to sing.
Tonight the spotlight falls on a master and apprentice duo from Philadelphia, the greatest center of organ jazz in the USA. Jimmy McGriff was a musician in the city of brotherly love who played a variety of instruments including drums for bands in the Philly and New Jersey area. Though he was an able journeyman he held down a day job as a cop in which he achieved some minor notoriety for once issuing a ticket to none other than Miles Davis!
Although the organ has been played by jazz musicians as far back as Fats Waller it was not until another Philadelphia boy named Jimmy Smith came along that those aforementioned Taliban of Jazz Purity, the critics, looked at their shoes, coughed a few times and said, ‘Well, maybe there is something to said about this B3 thing.’ Everyone in Philly was influenced by Jimmy Smith and a lot of them tried to imitate his style. But there were those who were drawn more to the blues and R&B potential of the 450 lbs. beast.
Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes was one of those. In the late 50s and early 60s he was a regular player in the Philly /Newark clubs and appealed largely to a non-jazz African American audience. His style was rawer then Smith’s. More urgent and hard-hitting. More conducive to small sweaty joints then the coffee and wine bars of the jazz crowd.
Holmes once heard the cop McGriff play the organ. A couple of beers and chats was all it took to convince the young man that law enforcement was not the reason why he had been placed on this earth. Rather his destiny could be found the beauty of the electric organ made by Mr Hammond of Chicago. McGriff heeded the advice. Both men went on to enjoy tremendously prolific (if not exactly financially lucrative) careers of purveyors of the very best soul/acid jazz. While McGriff was embraced eventually by the jazz fold he always saw his style being more bluesy. Holmes, who kept playing his organ until his death, continued to find his most appreciative audiences in the cities and clubs where black Americans lived, drank and danced.
The two greats, frequently referred to as Giants of the Organ, made a couple of records together, including this one which virtually races down the tracks like an express train running late. The album, which is a bit of a legend, pictures Holmes to the left (under McGriff’s name), has some misspellings and according to real organ boffins does not feature the B3 but some other version of the Hammond organ, is simply great. Pure 1970s funk with jazz and soul overtones, undertones and fleshtones.
Enjoy every moment of it!
01 Licks A’ Plenty
02 Out Of Nowhere
03 The Squirrel
04 Finger Lickin’ Good
05 How High The Moon
06 Things Ain’t What They Used To Be