Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sunday Music: the Hammond Organ, by Wiggia

The one thing that can be said about the Hammond Organ is its fall from grace was as quick as its rise. During the sixties several musicians formed groups including this keyboard instrument and Jimmy Smith in particular sold an awful lot of albums for Blue Note during that period.

He wasn’t the first and he wasn’t the only one to front a group using it, but he was the biggest star and the one name that endured in the time since. In modern parlance the Hammond Organ is a Marmite instrument, you like it or don’t and there are few people in between. On a purely personal basis I found it to be wearing for an album of it, but certain numbers can and do come across well, and of course it is out of the mainstream of jazz whilst a mainstay of prog rock, gospel, R&B etc.

Hammond organs were first manufactured in 1935 and the company went out of business in ‘85, so its reign was relatively short though Suzuki Musical Instruments took over the name and are still supplying to various groups in rock and blues and for churches. In jazz it appears infrequently as a backing instrument but rarely now as a lead. And of course the Hammond was an electronic forerunner to the plethora of electronic keyboards used today mainly in rock, though even there digitally produced sounds are taking over.

Jimmy Smith started playing the Hammond in the fifties though the first to start playing jazz on the instrument was one Ethel Smith, but Fats Waller was the prime mover and Count Basie also used it for a period.

If you Google jazz organists quite a list appears but few specialised and few became famous. Besides Smith the obvious candidates were Wild Bill Davis, Shirley Scott, Jack McDuff, Johnny “Hammond” Smith, and Richard “Groove” Holmes, Larry Young and some minor players or occasional ones.

Its jazz base has always been a black one; the black churches did and still do use the instrument, hence the sales of organ jazz have historically been to the black population. It never really took hold with white jazz lovers.

This is Fats in ‘42 playing the Jitterbug Waltz. He had played an earlier pre Hammond organ as far back as the mid twenties but this is an early Hammond recording.

One of Richard “Groove” Holmes' efforts from ‘66 “Living Soul”:

Of the top protagonists Shirley Scott outlasted them all. This, The Blues Ain’t Nothin But Some Pain from her ‘64 Great Scott album was the first time she had sung on record and she wrote this number and words the day before the recording date. For me she is up there with the best, in fact I prefer most of her music even over Jimmy Smith, somehow she makes the organ sit well with other instruments, few do. She was an admirer of Jimmy Smith but in many ways she surpassed him. She died in 2002 having recorded and performed till ‘92 .

Her health began to fail after using the now banned diet drug combination "Fen-phen", which she began taking in 1995. By 1997 she had developed primary pulmonary hypertension as a result of the drugs, and was permanently bed-ridden. She sued the manufacturer and the prescribing doctor, and was awarded a settlement of 8 million dollars in 2000.

This ‘61 rendition of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” from the album Satin Doll recorded by Rudy Van Gelder is as good as it gets from Shirley:

This live number from the Antibes Jazz Festival in ‘64 has “Brother” Jack McDuff leading his own group and the film shows in part the dexterity required to play any organ with its multiple keyboards. McDuff is in the Jimmy Smith mould as you will hear later.

Larry Young has featured with me before and this is from the same ‘65 album Unity. He probably gets his organ nearer to modern jazz than anyone else and this album was voted one of the best in its period. The stellar lineup with Young was Woody Shaw trumpet Joe Henderson tenor and Elvin Jones drums; to me this is the best Hammond album full stop and the about the only one I keep playing after all these years.


Jimmy Smith has to be here, such a big star for Blue Note in the sixties with those tremendous album covers they did then. He was in all ways very distinctive and very much the showman live.

The Sermon, the title track from the album of the same name is one of his big hits. In ‘64 Jimmy was a big star and for this reason there is some live footage of him in action:

Born in 1925 or 28, there is some dispute over this for reasons I have yet to fathom. He like so many when it came to putting bread on the table joined his father in a song and dance routine in clubs at the age of six, then self taught to play the piano, and at nine won a boogie-woogie contest on that instrument. In ‘48 - ‘49 he went to musical colleges, he began to play the organ then and joined some R&B bands playing piano. He never really left R&B as later in his career he went from hard bop to mainstream jazz funk and jazz fusion.

Smith's popularity dipped along with many others in the jazz fraternity in the 70s but he had a big revival starting in the eighties and toured to much popular acclaim. He then moved with his wife Lola to Arizona in 2004 where soon after she died of cancer. He was found dead of natural causes not long after in 2005 shortly after agreeing to go on tour again.

His pure jazz days (?) were in the 50s and 60s in those Blue Note years; in the 70s Smith opened a supper club in North Hollywood and here he recorded “The 1972 album Root Down, considered a seminal influence on later generations of funk and hip-hop musicians, was recorded live at the club.”

and finish with this from ‘97, Stormy Monday with Kenny Burrel on guitar:

Marmite ?

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