Big John Patton was born on July 12, 1935 in Kansas City, Missouri. His mother, a church pianist, taught him how to play the fundamentals. When he was about 13 years old, in 1948, he began to teach himself. He was inspired by the music he heard in Kansas City, but he wanted to play beyond his hometown jazz scene.
In 1954 after high school, he headed east and found professional work in Washington D.C., he found out that R&B star Lloyd Price was playing at the Howard Theater, that he had just fired his pianist and needed a new player. John played a few bars from the introduction to “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy” and was given the job.
It was a five-year relationship that gave him an education he couldn’t have gotten elsewhere. He was Lloyd’s “straw boss” and the leader, he recruited top players including drummer Ben Dixon, who encourage him to check out the Hammond B-3 organ when they played in clubs that had one. A man called Butts first showed Patton how to set up the organ and find the right registrations. When he moved to New York in late 1959, it was his friend Herman Green who played with Lionel Hampton who helped him learn how to play it.
That same year Big John formed his own Hammond organ trio. Blue Note artist Ike Quebec became his mentor, introducing him into Blue Note and to one of the most important relationships in his career, with guitarist Grant Green. He went on to work as a sideman for Lou Donaldson for three and a half years. During the 1960s he became one of the most recognizable figures on the jazz scene and was a driving force of the sound of electric organ.
Over the years he recorded for Blue Note with Harold Alexander, George Coleman, George Braith, Don Wilkerson, Clifford Jordan, Harold Vick, Johnny Griffin, Grachan Moncur III, Ron Carter, Black Star, James “Blood” Ulmer, John Gilmore, John Zorn, Jimmy Ponder, Johnny Lytle, Red Holloway, Art Blakey and Marshall Allen to name a few.
Patton’s style has been resistant to imitation because of its space and economy, often being called minimalist. But he claimed that he emulated the sounds of his favorite trumpet and reed players. By the time the Acid Jazz movement emerged in the 1980s there was a resurgence in interest in his music in the UK and he made several trips to England where he was embraced by the Acid Jazz community.
Patton continued recording until the late Nineties and he developed a loyal following in both Japan and Europe, both of which he toured in addition to his dates in the United States. He recorded as a part of the Red Hot Organization’s compilation album Red Hot + Indigo in tribute to Duke Ellington. He recorded 16 albums as a leader and another twenty-six as a sideman.
Pianist and organist Big John Patton, a major figure in the development of the funk and blues rooted jazz known as soul jazz and considered the inspiration for the Acid Jazz movement, passed away from complications arising from diabetes in Montclair, New Jersey on March 19, 2002.
Jimmy McGriff was born James Harrell McGriff on April 3, 1936 in Germantown, Pennsylvania and started playing piano at the age of five. By his teens he learned to play vibes, alto saxophone, drums and upright bass. His first group was as bassist in a piano trio. When he joined the United States Army he served as an MP during the Korean War, later became a police officer in Philadelphia for two years.
Music kept drawing McGriff’s attention away from the police force. His childhood friend, Jimmy Smith began earning a substantial reputation and he became entranced by the organ sound while Richard Groove Holmes played at his sister’s wedding. Holmes went on to become his teacher and friend.
Buying his first Hammond B-3 organ in 1956, spent six months learning the instrument, and then studied at New York’s Juilliard School. Influenced by Count Basie, Howard “The Demon” Whaley, Austin Mitchell and Milt Buckner with whom he studied privately and as well with Jimmy Smith and Sonny Gatewood.
Forming a combo Jimmy played around Philadelphia often featuring tenor saxophonist Charles Earland, who soon switched to the instrument. During this time, McGriff also accompanied such artists as Don Gardner, Arthur Prysock, Candido and Carmen McRae, who came through town for local club dates.
In 1961, McGriff’s trio recorded an instrumental version of Ray Charles’ hit “I Got A Woman” for Jell Records, and after the record received substantial local airplay, Sue Records picked it up and recorded a full album of McGriff’s trio, released in 1962. The album established his credentials as a fiery blues-based organist, well versed in gospel, soul and “fatback groove”.
McGriff would recorded a series of popular albums by the mid Sixties ending with what still stands as one of his finest examples of blues-based jazz, Blues for Mister Jimmy. Over the next decade he went on to continue recording for Solid State, opened his own supper club “The Golden Slipper” in Newark, New Jersey and performed regularly performed with the Buddy Rich Band.
Though he retired from the music industry in 1972 to start a horse farm in Connecticut his records were being issued at three to four a year by Sonny Lester’s Groove Merchant label. By 1973, Jimmy was touring relentlessly and actively recording again and though disco was gaining a hold it did little to stop the organist. He produced some of his best music during this period: Stump Juice, Red Beans and Outside Looking In.
The 1980s saw McGriff working with Rusty Bryant, Al Grey, Red Holloway, David “Fathead” Newman, Frank Wess and Eric Alexander, and started a longtime partnership with Hank Crawford. Into the new millennium he experimented with the Hammond XB-3 and organ synthesizer with Midi enhancements. Along with his soul jazz sound, forming the Dream Team group he recorded and released his last album, McGriff Avenue in 2001.
On May 24, 2008 at the age of 72, hard bop and soul jazz organist and bandleader Jimmy McGriff, who left a catalogue of 57 albums to posterity, passed away in Voorhees Township, New Jersey from complications due to multiple sclerosis.
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Don Pullen was born on December 25, 1941 and was raised outside Roanoke, Virginia and learned to play the piano at an early age. He played with the choir in his local church, was heavily influenced by his jazz pianist cousin, Clyde “Fats” Wright and took some lessons in classical piano. He knew little of jazz, concentrating mainly on church music and the blues.
Leaving Roanoke for Johnson C. Smith University in North Carolina to study for a medical career, Pullen soon realized that his true vocation was music. After playing with local musicians and being exposed for the first time to albums of the major jazz musicians and composers he abandoned medical studies for music.
By 1964 he was in Chicago with Muhal Richard Abrams, then moved to New York City and immersed in the avant-garde recording with Giuseppi Logan. Along with band mate Milford Graves formed a duo, started a small label and recorded his first sessions that did great in Europe. He turned to more profitable organ and during the 60’s and 70s played trio dates and backed such vocalists as Arthur Prysock, Irene Reid, Ruth Brown, Jimmy Rushing and Nina Simone. He held a brief position with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1972.
Over the course of his career he would play with Charles Mingus, lead his own groups, form the George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet, put together the African Brazilian Connection, worked with Native American drummers and choir, and played with Nilson Matta, Carlos Ward, Gary Peacock, Tony Williams, Hamiet Bluiett, Bill Cosby, Jack Walrath, Maceo Parker, Roy Brooks, Jane Bunnett and David Murray among others.
Don Pullen jazz pianist, organist and composer of blues to bebop, who recorded over 30 albums as a leader and more than three dozen as a sideman, passed away of lymphoma on April 22, 1995.
James Carroll Booker III was born on December 17, 1939 in New Orleans, Louisiana to piano playing Baptist ministers. He spent most of his childhood on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where his father pastored and got a saxophone from his mother. However his interest lay stronger with the keyboard and he started playing organ in his father’s church.
Returning to New Orleans in his early teens, Booker attended the Xavier Academy Preparatory School, learning some elements of his keyboard style and playing Bach and Chopin among other classical composers, in addition to memorizing solos by Errol Garner and Liberace. He became a masterful interpreter of jazz and other pop music styles combining performance elements of stride, blues, gospel and Latin piano styles.
Booker made his recording debut in 1954 on the Imperial label, with “Doin’ the Hambone” and “Thinkin’ ‘Bout My Baby.” This led to some session work with Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis and Lloyd Price. In 1958, when just 18, James had the opportunity to play and astonish Arthur Rubenstein who revealed he could never play at that tempo. He would go on to matriculate through Southern University, record a few moderately successful singles, hit the Billboard charts, and venture into the drug world ultimately serving a brief sentence.
By the 70s he was recording for Paramount, then Island Records, performing at the Nice, Montreux and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festivals, touring Europe, house pianist at the Maple Leaf Bar, played and toured with Jerry Garcia, and his “Let’s Make A Better World” would be the last record produced in the former East Germany.
James Booker died on November 8, 1983, while seated in a wheelchair, waiting to be seen at the emergency room at New Orleans Charity Hospital. The cause of death was renal failure due to his life-long struggle with drug abuse and alcoholism.
Jackie Davis was born on December 13, 1920 in Jacksonville, Florida. He first learned to play by spending hours poking at his grandmother’s piano. By the age of eight, he was playing with a local dance band. By the age of eleven, he’d earned enough from playing to buy his own piano, and music enabled him to pay his way through Florida A&M College, graduating in 1943.
After serving time in the Army, he worked as a pianist, usually as an accompanist for singers such as Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and Billy Daniels. Although he was attracted to the organ, he was intimidated at the prospect of playing jazz on it, particularly when his idol at the time was the lightning-fast Art Tatum. However, the Hammond Organ Company began selling electric organs in the late 40s, and in 1951 he bought his first organ. He appeared at Club Harlem in Philadelphia, and a two-week gig turned into nearly five months. Jackie became the first musician to popularize jazz on the Hammond organ, years before Jimmy Smith’s name became synonymous with organ jazz.
Davis signed with RCA to record a couple of 45s but no album so he went to Trend Records in Los Angeles and released a 10” album. He joined Louis Jordan’s outfit and learned stage presentation and in 1956 signed with Capitol Records, became their leading performer on the organ at a time when relatively few mainstream labels were willing to put a black musician on the cover of an album and released a total of nine albums. He went on to sign with Warner but that proved to be the end of his recording career.
Over the next thirty years of his career he performed in clubs from Vegas to Atlantic City, jazz festivals and restaurants, produced Ella Fitzgerald records, and was hired by Norman Granz for her Lady Time session, and was a regular fixture at a Hilton Head, South Carolina club. He worked with the likes of Paul Quinichette, Junior Mance, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Clark Terry, Ray Brown, Keter Betts, Max Roach and many others.
In 1992 Hurricane Andrew wiped out his home in Florida causing a financial and physical strain on his health and he suffered a series of strokes. He attempted to perform but his health didn’t hold up and on November 15, 1999 pianist and organist Jackie Davis passed away in his hometown of Jacksonville.