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.
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.