Organ jam pumps life into Newark tradition
By George Kanzler
As drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie laid down a fat beat on a rolling blues in E-flat, two organs just weren't enough. Jimmy McGriff and Gene Ludwig sat at the Hammond B-3 on the left, while Rhoda Scott and Gloria Coleman shared the bench of the B-3X on the right, with a standing Charles Earland reaching in a hand between the two women.
Churning riffs poured out of the big, fan-driven Leslie speakers on stage, overlapping each other in a happy, multi-riff roar as Eric Alexander, David "Fathead" Newman and Jerry Weldon wailed and honked through a tight exchange of short tenor sax solos. Even Earland, shut out from an organ bench, grabbed a tenor and blew a couple of choruses. Meanwhile, the wide aisle bisecting the Terrace Room at Newark's Symphony Hall filled with jitterbugging, jiving and boogalooing dancers. It was a joyous, raucous scene, the finale of the Jazz Organ Jam on Sunday evening, ending the weekend's Newark Jazz Connection '98 series, presented by the City of Newark and radio station WBGO, Jazz 88. It boded well for the future of series, which promises to be an annual event.
Since the demise of Newark's jazz club scene - dominated from the 1950s through the 1970s by rooms with B-3 organs - almost two decades ago, organ jams have become some of the best attended and most successful jazz events in the city. They were a staple of the now defunct Newark Jazz Festival during most of this decade, and the organizers of Newark Jazz Connection hope to keep them as a cornerstone of their annual series.
Sunday's was a prime example of the jazz organ jam as a Newark institution. It brought together organists who had played at Newark jazz rooms such as the Key Club, Cadillac Club (later Sparky J's), Teddy Powell's, Lynn & Lynn's and McGriff's own Golden Slipper. The four billed organists (Coleman, in the audience, sat in for the finale) were joined, in various combinations, by the tenor saxophonists plus trumpeters Carlos Francis and Jim Rotundi, guitarists Melvin Sparks and Bob DeVos and drummers Purdie and Don Williams.
One of the big surprises of the jam was Scott's set. An expatriate in France for 30 years now, the organist is hardly an unknown quantity, having made almost yearly appearances in and around Newark during those three decades. But at most of those appearances, even former organ jams, she's worked with small combos, usually just a drummer and saxophonist, doing her own repertoire and featuring her singing as much as her playing. Sunday she was joined by not only Purdie and tenor saxophonist Newman, but also trumpeter Francis and guitarist Sparks. And she put the emphasis on the groove, reveling in hard-driving swing and romping through rhythmic riffs behind the other soloists. She gave McGriff and Earland, both known for their bluesy, hard-stomping grooves, a run for their money, especially on a goodtime nod to the Gershwin Centennial, "I Got Plenty of Nothin'," with an infectious, organ-driven vamp in the middle that practically levitated the band. The one song Scott sang, "A Quiet Place," served as a spare, lyrical contrast to the rest of her set, with Newman providing perfectly modulated obligatos to her vocal.
Newman was also effective during Ludwig's set, fashioning memorable solos -on "Green Dolphin Street" and "Lover Man." McGriff pumped out some mean blues riffs during his set, sparking fervid solos from Alexander and prancing, high-note-laced ones from Rotundi. Conga player Butch Johnson brought an extra boogaloo feeling to the set's faster blues. Earland began the conluding set by talking about all the Hammond organs in churches, then sang and played a testifying gospel song, "Since I Laid My Burden Down" complete with sing-along. With Rotundi, Alexander and DeVos adding to his already orchestral organ sound, Earland then stomped through "My Favorite Things," turning it into a bluesy hard-bop, and ended with this rollicking version of "(I Love You) More Today Than Yesterday."