Thursday, September 10, 2009

First Gravy: Journeys of the Hammond Organ

While the whole “acid jazz” movement of the 1990s helped to revive or, at least, spark some sort of interest in the Hammond B-3 organ and its practioners, very little has been done to give these folks (with one major exception) the place they deserve in the canon of creative music known as jazz.

Outside of Jimmy Smith, who is undoubtedly the best known and best loved of all jazz organists, too few of the folks who practice their art on the amazingly complicated Hammond B-3 organ are given their due.

After the revival, several keyboardists staked their claim and breathed new life into the once moribund B-3. But while most of the clubs on the chitlin circuit which used to keep the music alive were long gone, these new players developed small cults in the jam band world. And still the organ still remains a kind of bastard step child, kind of a miscellaneous oddity in the jazz world; not entirely embraced and not entirely acceptable.

One notable exception to the rule is the gregarious Bay Area producer and promoter Pete Fallico, who among other things keeps the organ jazz tradition alive with his Doodlin’ Records label. Fallico’s label, devoted exclusively to organ jazz, has showcased some of the surviving greats of the art like Rhoda Scott, Trudy Pitts and Gloria Coleman and some of the newer Hammond heroes like Joey DeFrancesco and Bill Heid.

Another exception is filmmaker Jesse Fankushen, who has lovingly completed a 38-minute documentary film titled First Gravy: Journeys of the Hammond Organ, a labor of love to honor the jazz practioners of the Hammond B-3 organ. The California native and UC Santa Cruz professor harbors an abiding love for jazz organ that borders on perverse fascination, something he explores beautifully in the film.

“The film came about as a labor of love,” says Fankushen. “I knew about the Hammond from an interest in Blue Note Records, particularly Grant Green, where I found out about some of the older Hammond players. I then began attending Hammond shows put together by Pete Fallico and the San Francisco Jazz Festival.

He saw legends of the art like Jimmy McGriff, Big John Patton, Brother Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, and Dr. Lonnie Smith in the late 1990s. “The music was great,” he says, “but I was just as interested in how the audience dressed up and seemed to revere the experience of hearing this music.”

Then along came Ken Burns’ sprawling Jazz documentary and Fankushen discovered there was next to nothing in it about soul jazz. Surprised and dumbfounded, he wanted to know more.

He heard about a newly launched master’s degree program at the University of California – Santa Cruz called Social Documentation. The whole idea was to catalog people whose stories had never been told before. Putting two and two together, Fankushen realized this was the perfect opportunity to document his love of jazz organ and learn more about the music he loved.

He lurched forward in late 2006, interviewing Bay area practioners like gospel player Steven Roberts. Over the next year he amassed hours of interview and performance footage and weaved it into First Gravy, which derives its too-obscure title from a song about, you guessed it, making one’s “first gravy,” by Houston-based organist Leon Spencer, who is also featured in the film.

During a breezy 38 minutes, Fankushen covers a lot of ground, interspersing interviews of Pete Fallico and organists Jackie Ivory, Linda Dachtyl, Leon Spencer, Nick Rossi, Reuben Wilson, Tony Monaco (who also plays accordion), Gene Ludwig, Wil Blades, Dr. Lonnie Smith, guitarist Calvin Keys (Ahmad Jamal, etc.) and producer Joe Fields with too-brief performance footage of Bob Birch (formerly of The New Mastersounds), Dr. Lonnie Smith, Wil Blades and Asian B-3 wunderkind Atsuko Hashimoto.

It’s a terrific round-up of surviving organists, with Linda Dachtyl, Tony Monaco and Gene Ludwig providing some of the most insightful commentary in the film. Dachtyl in particular beautifully demonstrates how some of the organ greats derived their wildly differing sounds on the B-3 behemoth. It’s a crash course in organomics that could have easily extended the film another ten to 15 minutes. It could have even made an enticing documentary all its own.

While this viewer was pleased that Pittsburgh hometown great Gene Ludwig was featured in the mix (interestingly discussing organ jazz audiences then and now), it seemed like the film didn’t properly honor the Philadelphia contingent of organists.

Philadelphia is the cradle of organ jazz, launching any number of the art’s greatest warriors, from Jimmy Smith, Bill Doggett and Don Patterson to Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland and Shirley Scott, among many, many others. Surely Fankushen could have represented Trudy Pitts, Joey DeFrancesco or Chester Smith here.

Also, I would have preferred to have heard from producer Bob Porter, who has prominently documented many of the great organists over time on the Prestige, Eastbound/Westbound, JAM and Milestone labels. He’s also a great spokesperson for the art. But maybe that could make for a good Second Gravy.

Fankushen spices the proceedings here with remarkable footage that includes Ethel Smith from the 1944 film Bathing Beauty, performing an utterly amazing “Tico Tico” and Jimmy Smith, of course, from an early -1960s TV appearance on Jazz Scene USA.

But, in the background, he also provides some great organ music that includes Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz,” Jimmy Smith’s “Root Down,” Jimmy McGriff’s “Miss Poopie,” Charles Kynard’s “Sweetheart,” (and terrifically interesting participant) Reuben Wilson’s “Orange Peel” and “Inner City Blues.”

The film’s style is remarkably well assured, clearly providing a great reverence to its subjects without ever dipping into fawning adulation or false grandiosity. Fankushen puts it all together very nicely in a lively style that has a great rhythmic quality, yet never becomes overly arty - just like organ jazz should be. It’s got its appreciation in all the right places and will be a joy for anyone who loves organ jazz to see.

Contact Jesse Fankushen at jfankushen at yahoo dot com for more detail.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for the nice commentary on Jesse's film.

Linda Dachtyl

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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Soul Sugar said...

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