© - Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Other than a comprehensive retrospective in Barry Kernfeld’s The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz which was edited and reprinted in 1995 and Christopher Washburne’s two page reference as part of his essay entitled Miscellaneous Instruments in Jazz which is included in Bill Kirchner, editor, The Oxford Companion to Jazz , the following history of Jazz organ by Leonard Feather is the best overview of the organ’s history that I’ve yet to come across although it is limited by the fact that it was published in the October 24, 1963 edition of Down Beat and therefore couldn’t include references to current masters such as Larry Goldings, Barbara Dennerlein and the sublime Joey DeFrancesco.
Like the harmonica and the accordion, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the appropriateness of the instrument in a Jazz setting: usually Jazz fans either love it or hate it.
I am a big fan of the organ in Jazz, and have been ever since I heard Jimmy Smith’s Hammond B-3 performances on his Blue Note recordings from the 1950’s and 60’s.
Because of its length, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles is offering this feature in two-parts.
“ON Nov. 17, 1926, at the Victor studios in Camden, N.J., a 22-year-old pianist named Fats Waller changed his name, for a couple of hours, back to Thomas Waller. There was reason for more dignified billing on the record label when St. Louis Blues and Lenox Avenue Blues were released: on this unprecedented occasion Waller had reverted to an instrument he often referred to as his first love, the pipe organ.
This was the beginning of the long, slowly developed first chapter in the history of jazz organ. The second, which was not to begin for a full decade, stemmed from the first use on records of the modern electronic organ. The third chapter was launched in 1950 when two tunes were cut for a single 78-rpm release by Bill Davis, who brought a comparatively modern sound to the electronic organ. The fourth and most productive chapter began, of course, with the arrival in 1956 of Jimmy Smith and the subsequent mass organization of ex-pianists (and of bars and grills) from Portland, Ore., to Portland, Me.
To view this sequence of developments in correct perspective, one must admit a priori that the organ at first had no basic relationship to jazz and seemed like a complete outsider, a freak novelty. The fact of its extensive church use had less bearing on the matter than might have been expected, though Waller once tried to imply a link by recording pipe organ solo versions (in a predominantly reverent, only occasionally jazz-tinged manner) of a half-dozen Negro spirituals. (There was occasional use of organs on early Negro religious records, but the organ attributed to Fred Longshaw on some Bessie Smith 1925 sides was merely a harmonium.)
The lack of any strong association between the organ and traditional jazz does not seem as relevant when one takes into account the fact that at one time even the saxophones were regarded as outsiders, maverick horns brought in from the world of brass bands, and that just about every instrument introduced to jazz was a seemingly irrelevant innovation at one stage or another.
The real reasons for the delay in the organ's acceptance were, first, the lack of accessibility of the instrument and the unusual expense involved in buying or renting one (this remained true even after the invention of the electronic version); second, the extraordinary demands placed on the performer.
Although virtually all jazz organists today are former pianists, the piano is a limited proving ground. Switching to organ, of course, involves many new elements: the use of multiple keyboards; of a vast variety of stops, endless combinations of which must be employed; and of the left foot, not merely to pay out the time, but also to play walking single-note lines on pedals that are arranged like the black and white notes on the keyboard, i.e. chromatically.
The use of the foot gives the most trouble. As Dick Hyman says(“I am indebted to Dick Hyman for his assistance in the writing of the technical passages. L.G.F.), "I know of no jazz or pop organist who can do the unbelievable things that Bach organ pieces call for. Playing foot pedals is the beginner's chief problem; continual practice and co-ordination are needed, akin to that between drummer's hand-and-foot relationship."
Obviously there is a great difference in technique involved in playing the various organ models now available to the beginner.
Pipe organs were originally just that, with air resonating in pipes, some open and some stopped, some with reeds, etc., and in the early days using bellows operated by a second person, until electrification arrived. After the early church use, pipe organs were adapted to theaters. They had many percussive instruments actually built in: xylophones, drums, cymbals, glockenspiels, celestes, even pianos, as well as a variety of sound effects.
The electronic organ changed all this. It was claimed that the electric models could synthesize any tone from nine drawbars, individually manipulating and controlling the primary tone (eight feet), and the octave below (16 feet), the octave above (four feet), the octave above that (two feet), harmonics (5 1/3, 2 2/3, and others) that produce various fifth or third overtones. The sum total was a virtually infinite variety of tonal combinations. (The lengths listed in feet refer to the proportionate length of the pipes; these terms are still in use even though the actual pipes are not.)
The tones can be modified also by a built-in vibrato with several degrees of rapidity and waver, and there is now a universally used speaker, the Leslie, that rotates in separate woofer and tweeter units.
One new model of organ is, quite literally, something else. It has two speakers, one for each manual (keyboard), used separately or together, one a Leslie and one not, so that both types of speaker effect can be obtained together or alternately. In addition to a built-in reverberation, this new model has a "glide-pedal" that gives the player the fascinating and unique facilities for actually dipping into a tone or bending a note.
The only jazz musician who has experimented extensively with this model is Hyman, but further work with it may well lead, it seems, to the first major post-Smith step in jazz organ.
The organ touch has to differ from the piano's, because the tone stops instantly on release of the key and furthermore is not affected by the strength with which the key is struck. The loud-soft pedal must be used, a more legato style must be developed, and there is no equivalent of the way a pianist uses the sustaining pedal, though some models can approximate the piano sustaining-pedal effect through optional use of reverberation.
UNFORTUNATELY THE TIME has not yet come when jazz can claim to have developed musicians who started as organists rather than as pianists. When that day arrives, a whole new perspective may open up; meanwhile, the field is crowded with organists many of whom have an adequate but imperfect technique, most of whom studied piano but were self-taught as organists. Certainly Waller could have done much more for the organ had he been given the opportunity to study and play more often. On eight of the dozen tracks in the album Fats Waller in London [Capitol T 10258], Waller played a Compton pipe organ. "I'll never forget sitting down at the console of that magnificent organ in the HMV studio on the outskirts of London," he said later. "It reminded me of that Wurlitzer grand I played at the Lincoln Theater in Harlem when I was a kid 16 years old. I had myself a ball that afternoon, and the records really came easy." In addition to the six spirituals, which he did as organ solos, Fats played organ on two other tracks (Ain't Misbehavin' and Don't Try Your Jive on Me) with a British combo. These tracks are possibly the only examples now extant of an organ teaming successfully with an improvising swing-era combo. (The 1935 I Believe in Miracles, cut with a sextet in this country, may still be obtainable in The Real Fats Waller, Camden 473.)
Waller, though he rarely played organ in public, was no novice, of course; he had an organ in his home and often sat at it for many hours playing spirituals, hymns, and Bach fugues. It is said that he once named the three greatest men in history as Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Johann Sebastian Bach, in that order.
Despite the problem of being weighed down by the somewhat bloated, diffuse sound so often produced on pipe organ — the kind that used to be boasted about in movie theater ads as "mighty" — Waller managed to make the monster swing. He had, as they say, the right touch, the light touch.
Nevertheless, when he first tried out the electronic organ a couple of years later at a Chicago session waxed in January, 1940. the less cumbersome sound and the possibility of swinging more naturally were immediately apparent. The electronic organ obviously tended to facilitate an attack and genuine rhythmic pulsation such as could rarely be obtained from the mighty ones.
Waller recorded a number of tunes on the electronic model during the last four years of his life (he died in December, 1943), but almost all the best items have been cut out of the RCA Victor catalog; most, in fact, were never issued on LP at all. An album of electronic organ tracks featuring Waller and his 1940-42 groups (including, of course, Jitterbug Waltz) would be an appropriate release in these organ-oriented days. There were even one or two numbers on which he managed to swing a big band from the organ.
Aside from his own performances, the only organ records of any moment during Waller's lifetime were a solitary 1939 side on pipe organ by Count Basie with his band, Nobody Knows, now unavailable; a remarkable session on which Lester Young played as a side-man with a pseudo-jazz organist, Glenn Hardman; and a series of Decca 78s that were more notable for the piano of Willie (The Lion) Smith than for the pioneering but corny electronic organ work of Milt Herth.
Basie's status as an admirer and informal student of Waller did not lead to any substantial use of the big box. Basie's organ records have been so infrequent that a Joe Williams set is listed in the discography, simply because it is the only available LP on which Basie plays organ (electronic) throughout. His style is so close to Waller's that the source of inspiration is immediately evident.
THOUGH THERE may have been a few obscure, nonrecording exceptions to the rule, the organ in jazz lay virtually dormant for several years after Waller's death. Among the few men to observe this situation, and to do something about it, was William Strethen Davis.
It was while he was working with Louis Jordan's Tympany Five as pianist (1945-8) that Bill Davis felt the urge to fill the gap left by the then complete lack of jazz organists. He woodshedded, spending much of 1949 perfecting a modern technique capable of bringing to the organ some of the then prevailing new ideas in jazz. He experimented with the recorded sound of the electronic instrument in two trial sides with Jordan's group, Tamburitza Boogie and Lemonade Blues, in 1949.
At that time Mercer Ellington was my partner in a company, Mercer records. Ellington's father was so enthusiastic when he first heard Davis that he took him to a recording studio where, with Johnny Collins on guitar and Jo Jones on drums, two tunes were recorded, Make No Mistake and Things Ain't What They Used to Be. Duke himself sat in on piano for Things Ain't. The record was released on a single 78 and later incorporated into a 10-inch LP, New Stars, New Sounds, which has long since been cut out.
The reaction to the initial release was unprecedented. Musicians were gassed by Make No Mistake, which combined all the elements of single-line bop improvisation with full-blooded chord effects and a surging beat. Not only was this the beginning of the modern era in jazz organ, it was also the start of an instrumentation that was to become standard in hundreds of combos: organ, guitar, and drums.
(To give the sides a little added impetus that would stress the startling nature of the sounds, "Wild" was added to Davis' name. Before long Wild Bill Davis had become a major name, too firmly established to change.)
At first there was considerable skepticism when Davis took his organ into night clubs and bars. "What are you trying to do, make a church out of this place?" was the usual question asked.
The impact of Davis enabled many others who for years had been dabbling with the organ to take it up as a full-time profession. Milt Buckner, known for years as pianist with Lionel Hampton, then as pianist and vibraharpist with his own big band in 1949-50. spent a couple more years back with Hampton and then organized his own trio in 1952, playing organ exclusively. The locked-hand or block-chord piano style, which he had played a major role in establishing during the early 1940s, could be transferred very logically to organ.
Bill Doggett, who succeeded Davis as pianist with Louis Jordan, ultimately followed the pattern of his predecessor, switching to organ and forming a trio. He was first heard as organist on some records with Ella Fitzgerald not long after he had taken up the instrument in 1951.
A still later Jordan sideman, Jackie Davis, has been established for several years as one of the more popular organ trio leaders.
Credit should also be given to three musicians who were probably a little ahead of Bill Davis & Co. chronologically, though their particular styles did not have a comparatively massive impact and therefore passed relatively unnoticed. One was Bob Wyatt, who around 1948 was heard at the Royal Roost on Broadway working in a duo with pianist Billy Taylor. Wyatt impressed most listeners as a fine musician but not essentially a jazzman. He has recorded on the Forum label. Another was Doug Duke, best known for his home-built organ-cum-piano. Duke played with Lionel Hampton's band in 1950 and was heard in a few since-deleted Decca sides by Hampton and a quintet and in an LP on Regent records. Charlie Stewart, another organist who was ahead of his time, played at Wells' in New York about 15 years ago.
Although there were, as noted, unmistakable traces of the Gillespie-Parker influence in some of the improvisations of Bill Davis and his followers, the primary value of the new electronic organ sound they developed was in its ability to swing loud and long, with a tendency toward full, heavy-chorded passages and a feeling for strongly syncopated, extended riffing on the blues. Because of this, after the first shock had worn off, the purist jazz fans began to bypass the organists or to dismiss them as rhythm-and-blues performers. (The term rock and roll had not yet come into currency.) Doggett even won a Cash Box award later on as top r&b soloist.”
To be continued in Part 2.