The Hammond B-3 and the Guitar: A Great Jazz Tradition

Organic chemistry: The story behind this classic sound

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Guitarist Thornel Schwartz and organ master Jimmy Smith in 1956
By Francis Wolff
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Guitarist Pat Martino, with Pat Bianchi on Hammond B-3 organ, Philadelphia 2011
By Ben Johnson
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Jonathan Kreisberg (guitar) and Dr. Lonnie Smith (organ) in 2010
By Greg Aiello

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Spiritual harmony, musical adaptability or economic convenience; intertwining histories, compatible dynamics or complementary timbres. Organist Dr. Lonnie Smith calls the pairing of the Hammond B-3 and the jazz guitar “the perfect marriage,” and like any marriage the reasons behind the union are multifaceted and sometimes inexplicable, a combination of the romantic and the practical.

But since the emergence of the Hammond organ in the jazz idiom during the 1950s, its most common setting has been the trio with guitar and drums, a setup that provides as much opportunity for expression and invention for modern purveyors like Joey DeFrancesco, Jared Gold or Sam Yahel as it did for pioneers like Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff or Jimmy McGriff half a century before them.

“There’s something in that instrumentation that remains within it alone,” says guitarist Pat Martino, who played with many of the giants of the jazz organ when they passed through Philadelphia during his formative years. “It’s like a specific flavor of ice cream or a specific color. It cannot be achieved in any other way.”

“It’s just a natural fit,” says guitarist Bobby Broom. “Think of it as organic, like something in nature: It just works and you leave it to the scientists to figure out why.”

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The use of the Hammond organ as a jazz instrument and its coupling with the electric guitar can both be credited, with a degree of unanimity unusual in any retracing of history, to one man: Wild Bill Davis. Others had experimented with the organ prior to Davis’ arrival at the end of the ’40s: Fats Waller recorded on theater, electric and pipe organs, while Count Basie integrated the organ into his band after studying Waller’s playing. But it was Davis’ work on the Hammond beginning in 1949 that set the standard for the jazz organ in general and for the organ/guitar trio in particular.

Laurens Hammond invented his electric organ in 1934, largely as a showcase for a noiseless synchronous motor that he’d concocted. Donald Leslie’s speaker, which has become inextricably linked to the Hammond sound, didn’t follow until seven years later, by which time the Hammond organ had become a popular alternative to the far more expensive pipe organ in theaters, concert halls and especially churches. The soulful, blues-inflected vibe so associated with the Hammond sound has deep roots in the black gospel church, and it was in church that Wild Bill Davis first heard the Hammond and decided to switch his focus from the piano to the organ.

“That huge sound really came out of the church,” says organist Mike LeDonne. “That’s where the whole thing started; it had this soul sound built right in. When you hear Wild Bill Davis, he’s just swinging a church-organ style.”

Davis began recording a series of trio records in 1950, featuring guitarists Johnny Collins, Bill Jennings and Floyd Smith and drummers Jo Jones and Chris Columbus. A gifted arranger, Davis had worked extensively with jump-blues architect Louis Jordan and created the famed arrangement of “April in Paris” that became one of Basie’s biggest hits. The Hammond’s extensive sonic palette allowed Davis to explore his arranging skills in a small-band setting. “Wild Bill Davis played that organ just like an orchestra,” says Dr. Lonnie Smith. “He really brought that orchestration into the light. It sounded very full.”

Davis would go on to work in a variety of formats, including recording with saxophonists Illinois Jacquet, Johnny Hodges and Sonny Stitt, as well as trumpeter Hot Lips Page and R&B singer-pianist Ivory Joe Hunter. But at that early stage of his career, it wasn’t so much vision as practicality that led to his forming guitar-oriented trios. “Aside from the guitar, the organ was one of the few electric instruments to really make a stamp in the jazz realm,” says organist Larry Goldings. “I think they were paired up just from the sheer point of view of having another instrument that could compete with the dynamics and the volume that the organ could achieve.”

In addition, the guitar was a more prominent feature of many ensembles—from big bands down to trios—in that era than it later became. Think of a piano trio now and the lineup that springs instantly to mind is piano, bass and drums. But in the 1940s and early ’50s, piano-playing bandleaders like Nat King Cole, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson led trios with guitarists rather than drummers. It must have seemed an obvious move for Davis to employ a guitar player in his own bands.

Others began to follow Davis’ lead and switch from the piano to the organ over the next few years, including Davis’ successor in Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, Philadelphia pianist Bill Doggett, and Milt Buckner. It took only a few years for the next seismic shift in the jazz organ tradition to occur, and it would come at the hands of another Philadelphian. As LeDonne puts it, “And then Jimmy Smith came and changed everything.”

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Originally published in July/August 2013

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