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.
Eddie Harris was born on October 20, 1934 in Chicago, Illinois to a Cuban father and New Orleans mother. He studied music at DuSable High School, then Roosevelt University becoming proficient on piano, vibraphone and tenor saxophone and playing professionally with Gene Ammons.
After graduating and a stint in the 7th Army Band playing alongside Leo Wright, Don Ellis and Cedar Walton, he worked in New York City prior to his Chicago return. He signed with Vee Jay Records and released his debut “Exodus To Jazz” and his jazz arrangement of the theme to Exodus was so heavily played on radio, it became the first jazz record ever to be certified gold.
Throughout his career he recorded for Columbia and Atlantic Records, ventured into electric piano and Varitone saxophone mixing jazz with funk on albums like “The Electrifying Eddie Harris” and crossing into rhythm and blues markets. By 1969 he would perform with Les McCann at Montreux with an unrehearsed band that produced the seminal work Swiss Movement that became one of the best selling jazz albums ever.
In the early to mid ‘70s Harris experimented with altering instruments like his reed trumpet with a sax mouthpiece, saxobone with a trombone mouthpiece and guitorgan, a guitar/organ combination. He also forayed into singing blues, played with jazz-rock, and comic R&B consisting of mostly stand-up comedy all of which ultimately declined his popularity.
He would work with Horace Silver in the ‘80s, record regularly well into the 1990s, tour and perform in Europe and return to hard bop. His move to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s allowed him the opportunity to provide much of the music for The Bill Cosby Show.
Eddie Harris, tenor saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist and composer of “Freedom Jazz Dance” popularized by Miles Davis in the Sixties and also the tune “Listen Here”, passed away from bone cancer and kidney disease at the age of 62 on November 5, 1996.
Melvin Rhyne was born on October 12, 1936 in Indianapolis, Indiana and started playing the piano shortly thereafter. By the time he turned 19 he was playing piano with then-unknown tenor saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk but quickly switched to the Hammond B3 organ. His skills as a pianist fluidly translated to the organ fluently and he soon became a sideman for B.B. King and T-Bone Walker.
Melvin’s big break came in 1959 when he joined fellow Indianapolis jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery’s newly formed trio. Playing with Montgomery for five years, he recorded four sessions with the trio: Guitar on the Go, Round Midnight, Boss Guitar, and Portrait of Wes.
After the Montgomery years, Rhyne moved to Wisconsin and largely kept to himself for the next two decades. However, in 1991 Rhyne returned to the jazz scene in full force, playing on Herb Ellis’ album Roll Call, with Brian Lynch on At the Main Event, and his own comeback The Legend. Rhyne continued to be prolific in the years to come, releasing eight more solo albums for the Criss Cross jazz label.
In 2008 Rhyne teamed up with Rob Dixon forming the Dixon-Rhyne Project, a boundary-pushing jazz quartet and released Reinvention for Owl Studios in 2008. Melvin continues to perform live and record with his trio consisting of drummer Kenny Washington and guitarist Peter Bernstein. On March 5, 2013 hard bop organist, bandleader and composer Melvin Rhyne passed away in his hometown of Indianapolis at age 76.
Jack Wilson was born in Chicago, Illinois on August 3, 1936 but grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana from the age of seven. From 1949-54, he studied piano with Carl Atkinson at the Fort Wayne College of Music where he was introduced to the music of George Shearing.
Wilson later picked up the tenor saxophone and played in the Central High School band. He began performing locally leading small combos. By his fifteenth birthday, he had become the youngest member ever to join the Fort Wayne Musicians Union, Local 58. At 17, James Moody hired him to play a two-week stint as a substitute pianist.
After graduating from Central High, Jack spent a year-and-a-half at Indiana University, where he met Freddie Hubbard and Slide Hampton. Then touring with a rock ‘n roll band, he wound up in Columbus, Ohio and connecting with then unknown Nancy Wilson and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
After a year in Columbus, he moved to Atlantic City and led the house band at the Cotton Club, adding organ to his musical arsenal. At the Club he met Dinah Washington and worked with her from 1957-58.
A return to Chicago, Wilson was playing with Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Eddie Harris and Al Hibbler and holding down the gig at the Persian Lounge. Drafted into the Army, he went to Fort Stewart, GA. and became the first Black music director for the Third Army Area, playing tenor saxophone in the army band.
In 1961, jack received an honorable medical discharge due to diabetes, returned to Dinah Washington’s band for a year and encouraged by Buddy Collette moved to Los Angeles, California. It was here he worked with Gerald Wilson, Lou Donaldson, Herbie Mann, Johnny Griffin, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Lou Rawls, Eartha Kitt, Julie London, as well as Sonny & Cher. He composed and recorded the title track for Earl Anderza’s debut album Outa Sight!
Wilson recorded his debut as a leader for Atlantic Records with The Jack Wilson Quartet featuring Roy Ayers followed by a sophomore project, then three for the label’s subsidiary Vault Records and three albums for Blue Note including the classic Easterly Winds in 1967. From there he focused on work with vocalist Esther Phillips, went back to the studio for Discovery Records, and returned to be a sideman with Lorez Alexandria, Tutti Camarata and Eddie Harris.
His final recording session simply titled In New York, took place on June 4, 1993 and featured legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb. Composer and pianist Jack Wilson died on October 5, 2007 due to complications from his life with diabetes.