A Walk on the Wild Side
The Story of Jazz Organ

Allen Sears
Written from October-December 1994


Special Thanks to:

Gilles Bacon, for his help & interest
The Hammond mailing list
Marc Longo, for starting and managing the Hammond list
Jimmy Smith & Larry Young, for providing a soundtrack for this paper
My Parents, for letting me keep my Hammond M-3 in the living room

Please do not reprint, distribute, or broadcast any portion of this paper without permission from the author.



In 1974 the Hammond Organ ceased to be the 400 some-odd pound mechanical organism first developed by inventor Laurens Hammond (Vail, 46). That year, the last Hammond B-3 was given an oil-lubed synchronous motor that acted as the heart of the organ. That motor drove 96 spinning metal tone wheels that were the soul of the organ and the source of its distinctive sound. It was also in 1974 that the leading disciple of the Hammond Organ won his twelfth consecutive Down Beat poll as the Jazz World's greatest organist; Holmes Daylie put it best when he said, "Jimmy Smith is so far out in front of the other Hammond organists, he's lonesome." (Daylie, 1) To Jimmy Smith the potential of the Hammond Organ in a Jazz environment was as high as the potential of Shakespeare matched with a pen. It took this unlikely pairing of Jimmy Smith's soulful insight and the musical potential of the Hammond Organ to lift the noble instrument out of the roller-rink and into the cutting edge of Jazz and Soul, leaving behind a groove for other organists to follow in.

The history of the Hammond organ is laid out in a similar manner to the history of a life. It has a creator, ancestors, evolution, conflicts, imperfections, uniqueness, and an eventual death when the tone wheels just wont turn anymore. Most players feel a human bond with their organ. Keith Emerson once said, "The Hammond Organ is like a good hooker. You can abuse it, and it will abuse you too, but you'll both come up smiling." Paul Shaffer sums up his relationship with his Hammond, "When you are in love, silliness is to be expected." (Vail, 40-41) What is it that instills this love in the Hammond's players? It has something to do with its massive size and weight which almost dares players to attempt to take their organ to a performance. It has a lot to do with the whisper sweet nothings, to freight train collision range of tones that the or an can make. It has quite a bit to do with the sound of the starter motor kicking the organ to life in a adrenaline rush only matched by the sound of a old roadster roaring down a straight-away. Above all, it is the life cycle and almost human qualities of the organ that fuses the player-playee bond that any organist will admit, causes them to put more emotion, care, and feeling into the music they make with it. Laurens Hammond put the same kind of care into the planing and design of his most famous invention.

Laurens Hammond entered into the world in Evanston, Illinois on January 11, 1895. Hammond was educated in Europe, where his family moved soon after his birth, and eventually returned to the United States and attained a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cornell University in 1916. Hammond's first engineering accomplishment was a quiet clock enclosed in a soundproof box. (Britannica, 1) This clock used a small and very accurate motor synchronized to the new 60 Hz North American standard of alternating electrical supply (Salde, 120). Hammond quickly abandoned this career and sold the rights to his electric clock. (Britannica, 1) He took to inventing and received patents for such things as bridge tables with a card shuffler, 3-D movies, and missile control systems. (Vail, 4 1) However, Hammond seemed less than content with his portfolio of inventions and he strove too create something more classic. He found his motivation in the phonograph that he listened to in his lab. Now his efforts were focused on how to produce those musical sounds from a mechanical device, and he started with his synchronous motor. (Britannica, 1)

The steady nature of Hammond's motor proved to be a very promising starting point, since it is desirable forgan instrument to have a consistent tuning. The key was to find a way to make a sound using this motor. Hammond's ingenious idea was to use this motor to turn small metal wheels with accurately grooved edges. (Electric Organ, 102) Each wheel had a corresponding pole magnet wrapped with a coil of wire at the tip, which was pointed at the edge of the tone wheel. When the wheel rotated, it disrupted the magnetic field; thus inducing a current in the coil of wire. By adjusting the number of grooves on the tone wheel, the frequency of the current could be adjusted. (Electric Organ, 103-104) The tone wheels were engineered to rotate at the correct speed and with the appropriate number of grooves to produce audible frequencies which then can be amplified and fed to a speaker system. (Electric Organ, 97) Perhaps the most practical result of this method is that a Hammond organ never goes out of tune, the motor will always rotate the wheels at a constant speed.

Armed with his first organ, the Model A, Hammond applied forgand received a U.S. patent for his design in 1934. Production started in April 1935 and Hammond quickly hit the streets and showed off his organ to the public. (Davies, 120) At the Industrial Arts Exposition in Radio City's RCA Building, the organ drew accolades from most who attended. One person in particular was so fond of the organ that he bought it then and there, and Bob Pierce's purchase is now on display at the Smithsonian. (Vail, 41) Other famous buyers included George Gershwin and Henry Ford. (Davies, 120) The Hammond Organ continued its dominance and upset the Pipe Organ Manufactures enough for them to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Since the organ made its sound using electronics, the Pipe Organ Manufactures wanted to take away Hammond's right to market his instrument as an organ, rather calling it an electrotone. (Vail, 41) In the end, Hammond was allowed to continue to call his creation an organ and to dispel any doubt, he set up a blind listening test at the University of Chicago chapel where a $75,000 Skinner pipe organ awaited the challenge. (Vail, 41) In a third of the passages played, the panel of experts could not determine which organ was being played. (Davies, 121) Seeing as the Hammond cost around 1/75 of the pipe organ, its marketability was set and churches made up a third of early purchases. (Davies, 120) In the late 1930s, Fats Waller, a jazz artist who used church and theater organs in some of his recordings, noted the portability of the new Hammond and took one on tour. (Shipton, 273) This marked the Hammond Organ's shy entrance into the domain of Jazz.

As the son of a Baptist Pastor, Fats Waller learned to play church organ before he ever touched a piano. (Alexander, 44) Although he used a Hammond organ on the road, he rarely recorded with it. (Alexander, 44) Waller's style was more piano-oriented and did not break any expressive ground, but he was the first in a scant chain of early organists. (Shipton, 273) Waller's playing drew the curious ear of Count Basle, who sat next to Waller to try to learn his methods. (Alexander, 44) Basie made infrequent use of the organ in swing and big band recordings, and the instrument proved to be a novelty. (Shipton, 273) During this period and through the 1940s, the Hammond became a commercialized instrument, providing the background music for many commercials and soap operas. (Alexander, 45) The Hammond became the organ of choice for many entertainment venues such a roller-rinks and even baseball parks. Although becoming a widely popular instrument, these were the dark days of the Hammond Organ. Its expressiveness was never tested, but its sound was always being heard. Wild Bill Davis saw a future in that sound and started the uphill battle to redefine Jazz with the Hammond Organ. (Alexander, 45)

Wild Bill Davis was the dominating figure of what little jazz organ scene there was in the late 1940s. (Shipton, 273) His playing was much like that of Glenn Hardman's, a shoot off from Count Basie. Davis adopted a style more adapted to playing with a big band, but showed coherence in the R&B field. He also broke ground by recording with the first organ trio in the early 1950s. His talents were noted in the jazz scene and many people took to his style, including Bill Doggett who got his first job playing because of Davis and would later become one of the founders of Rock and Roll. (Alexander, 45) However, it was the frustrated young Jimmy Smith that took to the organ upon hearing Davis, and the fact that he couldn't find a piano that was in tune. (Birnbaum, 23)

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Jimmy Smith frequently hung around Philadelphia jazz clubs. (Doerschuk, 78) He was already talented on the piano and double bass; Jimmy was ready to play no matter what the circumstances were. (Birnbaum, 23) One magical night, Jimmy showed up to see Charlie Parker and Fats Wright play with pianist Bud Powell. (Doerschuk, 78) Jimmy, always looking for an opportunity, sat as close to the piano as he could. Bud Powell did not show up at 9:30, when the set was scheduled to start. Jimmy Smith continues, "Man, I never thought they'd call me, but Wright said, 'Well, we got this little guy from Norristown. Jimmy Smith is here.'" (Doerschuk, 78) In the style of all jazz understudies, Jimmy Smith quickly took off under his seat and hid. His attempt to detour destiny failed and he went on to impress all who witnessed the set, not to mention be invited back the next night where a steamed Bud Powell gave in and let Jimmy play one song while he shot heroin back stage. Jimmy candidly explained, "I hadn't been so scared since I got hit with shrapnel in the Navy." (Doerschuck, 78). At this time Jimmy had already been playing professionally for about a decade, being educated in music by his parents and the Hamilton and Orestein schools of music. (Dobbins, 470) Now Jimmy Smith was becoming a fixture in the local scene and demands on him became greater, but his instruments became worse. Jimmy was antagonized enough to call it quits on the piano, "I wasn't happy on the piano because you get so many out-of-tune pianos and I got tired of that." (Birnbaum, 23) At the age of 24 and, at that time, at the height of his career, Jimmy Smith virtually went into seclusion to learn how to play the Hammond Organ, and play it right. (Birnbaum, 23) That was in 1953, and in 1956 Jimmy came out of his cocoon and metamorphosed from a good pianist to a legendary jazz organist. (Alexander, 46)

Although taking the time to develop his own style, Jimmy Smith did have a few influences, "I went and heard Wild Bill... I said, 'That's for me.' I was influenced by the way he played, and wondered how he got that big sound." (Jazz Times, 3 7) It didn't take long for jazz artists to find out who had the big sound. Jimmy Smith stormed onto the national scene in 1956 at the Cafe Bohemia in New York. (Birnbaum, 23) He was already signed with Blue Note and had played with the likes of Miles Davis in Chicago. (Jazz Times, 37) After some undesirable experiences playing with other bands, Jimmy formed his own organ trio for the New York gig. Jimmy, along with drummer Donald Bailey and guitarist Thornel Schwartz, arrived in New York to find an already budding organ scene in the swell of this hot new guy from Philadelphia. (Birnbaum, 37) All of this made no difference, as Jimmy Smith wiped the floor with all of them. An inspired show impressed even jaded jazz critics who were reluctant to disturb the history of jazz with this new instrument. It is no exaggeration to say that with this one show, Jimmy Smith became knighted leader of his field and spawned numerous copycats; comparisons between Jimmy and jazz guitar innovator Charlie Christain seemed to roll off people's tongues. (Birnbaum, 37) This was the beginning of the sudden and dominating public popularity of jazz organ which took off like wild fire in the 1960s, leaving the old school jazz aficionados to do nothing but accept the changing times and faces of jazz.

Now established as the foremost jazz organist in America, Jimmy Smith set off to take over the world. He was the new kid at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957 that everyone would be talking about for years after. (Dobbins, 471) At the start of the 1960s, Smith may have been more popular in Europe, where jazz is still a more popular genre of music than in the United States. Jimmy took off for the Cannes festival in France and toured Europe extensively for many years to follow. (Birnbaum, 23) On top of his hectic touring, He managed to turn out numerous studio albums with Blue Note, including a particularly soulful set of music with his organ trio entitled The Sermon. Jimmy remembers, "I know a lot of people got married on The Sermon, lot of sexual intercourse on The Sermon, whole lotta things happened on The Sermon, man." (Birnbaum, 23) People marveled at how the title track, a twenty minute long instrumental, could retain its freshness and the listener for such a long duration. (Birnbaum, 23) Jimmy Smiths' Blue Note recordings were undoubtedly his finest hour. These generally featured a standard organ trio which explored Smith originals along with Jazz standards and traditional songs. In 1963 Jimmy Smith jumped ship and signed with the other Jazz recording giant, Verve. (Erlewine, 4) His last Blue Note record was Plain Talk. (Erlewine 2) This album features Jimmy Smiths' organ trio with the addition of a trumpet, alto sax, and tenor sax. (Hentoff, 4) This album is, in a word, "satisfying"; Nat Hentoff states in the liner notes, "Obviously the day this music was made was a special time for the men involved. No one was trying to 'prove' anything but his pleasure at bein there . . ." (Hentoff, 6) The Verve years brought changes for Smith and the organ scene. Smith began to favor recording with big bands, and organists attempting to clone the style and popularity of Smith came out of the woodwork (Erlewine, 4).

"Saturday, May 29, will be a sad day for the Electricity Board, for most of the organ players within easy traveling distance of London will be unplugging their instruments and heading for the Festival Hall to dig one James Oscar Smith, described by none other than Miles Davis as the 'eighth wonder of the world'." (Houston, 9)
The influential British music magazine Melody Maker ran a special section on February 27, 1965 about the organ in popular music; it was titled, "A Close Look At The Sounds That Will Shape 1965." Jimmy Smith was proclaimed, "The Daddy of 'em All" and soon enough daddy Smith was being followed by many baby Smiths trying to learn one thing that could put them on top of the rest of the pack. (Doerschuk, 79) It is, perhaps, the greatest credit to Smith that every other organist mentions him somewhere on the liner notes of their records. If you played organ in the 1960s it was your aspiration to be able to fly across the keyboard with your right hand, play intricate rhythm chords with your left hand, play walking bass lines with your left foot, and dynamically control the volume with your right foot on the swell pedal. Other organists did become rather good at the Smith method and these include Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Groove Holmes, Don Patterson, and Charles Earland, all of whom studied with Jimmy Smith at one point in their career. These organists rose into what limelight was left by Smith's shadow, but the 1960s were also the beginning of the end for the Hammond organ and by the 1970s, the synthesizer virtually made everyone forget that Jazz organ ever existed. (Jazz Times, 37)

Throughout the late 1960s, organists jockeyed for position in the Jazz polls, but it was Jimmy Smith who held the holy-grail of knowledge, and he had to beat back those beggars who wanted a mere sip. The likes of Jimmy McGriff and Groove Holmes, two accomplished organists, would show up as early as nine in the morning at Jimmy Smith's door to ask how he does a certain lick. Jimmy would teach them the same thing and never tell one that the other had showed up earlier. Later, at a show, McGriff and Holmes would end up sounding mysteriously similar, and spend the night arguing who made up the lick that they both had stolen from Smith. (Doerschuk, 79) "Brother" Jack McDuff came the closest to Jimmy Smith's style and was impressive in his own right. Although more piano-influenced, he could play the bass pedals well because of his studies on the double bass. His approach was more focused on the deliberate walking beat and mellow organ sounds. (Wilson, 1) Unfortunately the sound of the era turned from the Hammond to other instruments such as the Farfisa organ, the Fender Rhodes electric piano, and the funky Hohner Clavinet.

The new instruments had their own character and sound, but all were thin next to the Hammond. Jimmy Smith saw the impending doom for Jazz organ in 1970, "Everything's electronics. Somebody's going to invent a computerized organ after awhile and mess everybody's mind up, watch. Then we're really gonna be messed up." (Birinbaum, 23) The problems of portability and the end of the Hammond tone-wheel production cleared the way for the new wave of synthesizers to once again redefine the limits of Jazz, just as the Hammond had done decades earlier. However, above everything, it was the tragic story of one Larry Young that struck down the future of Jazz organ.

Larry Young was the impending light at the end of the tunnel. He was born in 1940 and saw Jimmy Smith spawn the genesis of Jazz organ, but Young's destiny was not to be a disciple. Young's inspirations were not from keyboard musicians, but rather from the great horn players that classic Jazz embraced. John Coltrane was a heavy influence in Young's musical vocabulary, but so was his conversion to the Suni Muslim faith. In a time when the organ scene was flooded with mediocre talent and Jimmy Smith clones, it was Young's refreshing approach that eventually attracted the ear of Coltrane and spurred a strong friendship between the two. Through the 1960s, Young recorded with some labels, but was lost in the haze of organists and received no popular air play. Toward the end of the 1960s, Young's career took a turn for the better. (Cuscuna, 1-3)

Young recorded the last of his Blue Note records in 1969, but he also teamed up with John McLaughlin and started The Tony Williams Lifetime, which was the first creative Fusion group. A few days later, Young and McLaughlin got an invitation to record with Miles Davis on his classic album In A Silent Way. Young turned down this opportunity because he was so involved with his new band. Davis remembers when Larry called him afterwards,

"'Hey Virgo, you better come up to the Village Gate this weekend. I'm playing with Tony Williams.' Obviously I went, and I remember being floored as I was the first time the John Coltrane Quartet hit me straight on at ninety miles an hour in Birdland some six or seven years before. I had no idea what Tony, Larry, and this Englishman with a clear plastic solid body guitar were doing or trying to do, but it was outrageous and beautiful." (Cuscuna, 3)
This was just the beginning of Young's 1969 glory. The trio's debut album recorded in May, was released on the Polydor label as a double album! Also in May, Larry Young got a chance to play in a jam with Mitch Mitchell, Billy Cox, and the legendary Jimi Hendrix. The recordings that they made were released on a Hendrix out-take record in 1980. Larry young continued to be the musician's choice into the 1970s. In 1972 he performed and recorded with Carlos Santana, and through 1975 he was playing organ for many popular groups and in front of huge crowds. Perhaps his expectations were built up too high, because in 1975 Larry Young was still a commercial flop. He just could not understand why no talent musicians were getting the spotlight (and the money) and he was still an unknown to the public. His frustration grew deep, but he braved the rough waters and reemerged in 1978 with a new group, a new record deal, and a new vigor for music. All signs were go for Young and the stage was set for a genius to resurrect mainstream organ music. On March 28, 1978, Warner Brothers put their chips on Young's talent and he was scheduled to open at a New York Jazz club with his new band. Young hardly had time to celebrate, as he checked into the Hospital just days before with stomach complaints. During his stay, under unexplained circumstances, Larry Young was struck with pneumonia. Also unexplained is the fact that it remained untreated, and on Thursday, March 30, at the age of 37, Larry Young died. (Cuscuna, 3- 4)

Jimmy Smith still speaks the King's English of Jazz organ. It takes a little searching, but every-so-often he can be found playing at local Jazz clubs. It would seem that the state of Jazz organ is in permanent limbo. It will never become the popular genre that it once was, but the 90s are the most promising decade since the 60s. There are some talented new artists like 25 year old Joey De Francesco, who played with none other than Miles Davis at seventeen years of age. He recently recorded with John McLaughlin, following the path and perhaps starting off where Larry Young's road ended. (Doerschuk, 12) Still the fact remains, Jimmy Smith has been the top Jazz organist for the past forty years, winning the Down Beat best organist poll this year. In fact he sees a bright future for Jazz organ, predicting its return in the not too distant future. Perhaps it will return. Perhaps the 1960s craze turned off potential talent, and the organ just needed some time to season and mature. Perhaps it will again be Jimmy Smith who takes the reigns of the majestic B-3, bucking and screaming, and rides it back to glory.

"Jimmy Smith, the unpredictable one, continues to be the restless, driving searcher for truth. Music is Jimmy Smith's life. Jazz is his testimony. Truth is his peace." (Shields, 1)


Works Cited


Alexander, Geoff X. "Historic Masters of Jazz Organ."
     _Keyboard_, May 1989: 44-57.

Bacon, Gilles. ^Groove^ (groove@webcom.com).
     WWW: http://www.webcom.com/groove/hg
     FTP: ftp://ftp.webcom.com/pub1/groove/hg/groove.faq

Birnbaum, Larry. "Jimmy Smith Sermonizing in the'70s."
     _Down Beat_, 15 December 1977: 22-23, 57.

Davies, Hugh. "Organ."
     _The New Groove Dictionary of Musical Instruments_. Ed. Stanley 
     Sadle. 2 vols. London: Macmillan Press Limited, 1984.

Del Shields, liner notes, Jimmy Smith - _Hobo Flats_, Verve, 
     V6-8544, 1963.

Dobbins, Bill. "Jimmy Smith."
     _The New Groove Dictionary of Jazz_. Ed. Barry Kernfeld. 
     2 vols. London: Macmillan Press Limited, 1988.

Doerschuck, Robert L. "Jimmy Smith 'These Hands Are Weapons!'"
     _Keyboard_, May 1988: 74-78.

Doerschuck, Robert L. "Joey De Francesco / Ex-Hammond Backer Stands 
     by the'B'." _Keyboard_, July 1994: 12.

Eby, Robert. "Hammond Organ."
     _Electric Organs: A Complete Catalogue, Textbook, and Manule_. 
     Wheaton, 11: Van Kampen Press, 1953. 97-104.

Erlewine, Michael. "Jimmy Smith."
     _All-Music Guide_ (on-line). 1994.

"Hammond, Laurens." _Britannica On-line_. 1994.

Homes Daylie, liner notes, Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery - _Jimmy & 
     Wes The Dynamic Duo_, Verve, V6-8678, 1966.

Houston, Bob. "Jimmy Smith - The Daddy of 'em All."
     _Melody Maker_ 27, February 1965: 9.

"Jimmy Smith: Baron of the B-3." _Jazz Times_, April 1990: 37.

Nat Hentoff, liner notes, Jimmy Smith - _Plain Talk_, Blue Note. 
     CDP 7 84269 2 1992

Shipton, Alyn. "Hammond Organ."
     _The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz_. Ed. Barry Kernfield. 
     2 vols. London: Macmillen Press Limited, 1988.

Tom Wilson, liner notes, Jack McDuff and Gene Ammons - _Brother Jack 
     Meets The Boss_, Prestige 7228, 1962.

Vail, Marc. "Down & Dirty: The B-3's Unbeatable Mechanical Soul." 
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