May Feature: The B3 Organ

May 1, 2013

Jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith - one of the artists for Night Train's May B3 Month feature
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Throughout May, Night Train teams up with Global Village, Strange Currency, Crossroads and Straight No Chaser to celebrate B3 Month on KMUW. On the Night Train, it's music from the giants and rising stars of jazz organ.

Over the years, many different instruments that were not part of early jazz ensembles have come to have a home in jazz. Their inclusion has added new textures and approaches to the music. One of the most successful migrants into jazz is the organ.

From its roots in the church and early movie theaters (where an organist would provide accompaniment to silent films and entertainment in between them), the organ found a place in jazz thanks to pioneers like Fats Waller (who had an early job in one of those movie theaters), Count Basie, Milt Buckner, and Wild Bill Davis.

The golden age of jazz organ was fueled in part by the decline of the big bands. Since the organ could get a loud and broad sound all by itself, it became one way to fill the hole left by those larger ensembles. Also helping to fuel interest in the sound was a particular, and increasingly popular instrument - the Hammond B3.

Hammond began building organs in the 1930s and from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s produced its B3 model. It weighed in at over 400 pounds (not counting the 125-pound Leslie speaker), originally sold for over $2000, and quickly became known for its distinctive, wide ranging, and warm sound.

One of the early markets for Hammond organs were as replacements for pipe organs in churches. So it is not surprising that the Hammond B3 would fit nicely into the blues, rhythm & blues, jazz, and soul jazz styles that could trace their roots back to gospel.

Jimmy Smith with a live version of his classic, "The Sermon" --

Jimmy Smith is largely credited with ushering in the golden age of jazz organ, starting a few short years after the B3 hit the market. A slew of talented players came along behind him - including Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, Jack McDuff, Reuben Wilson, Don Patterson, "Groove" Holmes, John Patton, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and Shirley Scott, to name a few.

Though interest in the instrument eventually declined, a new generation - led by Joey DeFrancesco and followed by players like Larry Goldings, Pat Bianchi, Tony Monaco, John Medeski, and more - revived interest in the instrument, in past styles, and in new forms and approaches.

Throughout May, Night Train highlights music from them all - early pioneers, golden era masters and latest players on the scene -along with classic recordings, contemporary titles, and a surprisingly large batch of new releases that feature the instrument as well.

Dr. Lonnie Smith and Joey DeFrancesco with a live performance of "Some Day My Prince Will Come" --