“Piano’s great,” Gregory Lewis says. “But the organ—I don’t want to say it’s better, but it’s just different. You have more power and control, and I do like to be in control when I’m playing.”
Lewis, a New York–based keyboardist and composer, is both one of the modern jazz masters of the Hammond B-3 organ and a Thelonious Monk specialist. His latest release—Organ Monk Blue, a trio with guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Jeremy Clemons—is one of four albums on which he finds his own voice within Monk’s music. Like many B-3 players, he learned to play piano before taking up the organ. He got serious about the Hammond while studying at the New School in New York and likens the process of transferring his keyboard skills to the instrument to learning to drive a stick shift.
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“At first, you have to learn to touch the keyboard in a different way,” he says. “Like when you’re going from automatic to first using a stick, you have to think, ‘Left foot, right foot’ quite a bit. But once you do it long enough, your muscle memory shifts gears and you have no problem going between the piano and the organ.” (Speaking of “left foot, right foot,” Lewis has also learned that the B-3’s pedals respond much better to him when both of his feet are clad only in socks. “I can’t play with shoes on,” he notes.)
Behind those Hammond pedals and keys, there’s a lot going on. Engineer Laurens Hammond, who invented his namesake instrument in 1934, had pioneered a synchronous motor to produce a soundless electric clock a decade earlier. He repurposed this invention for his organ, in which each of 61 keys is assigned nine mechanically rotating wheels, whose electric current is read by electromagnetic pickups and fed to an external speaker cabinet. The instrument’s sound is manipulated through a series of drawbars—metal sliders, not unlike those on a mixing board, that control volume and harmonic content.
Early adopters of the Hammond organ included Henry Ford and George Gershwin. The instrument quickly found a place in thousands of American churches as a lower-cost alternative to the traditional pipe organ, and it became closely associated with gospel music. It was also used in radio studios, for both music and sound effects.
1954 saw the introduction of the B-3, which would prove to be the company’s most popular model. In the 1950s and ’60s, it emerged as a commanding voice in jazz and popular music. Jimmy Smith used the instrument to set the prototype for the jazz organist, using its bass pedals to mimic an upright bassist, while at the same time playing virtuosic lines with both hands. Rock and R&B musicians like Steve Winwood, Keith Emerson, Booker T. Jones, and Billy Preston harnessed the instrument’s growling sounds to excellent effect.
Though the B-3 produces a massive wall of sound, Lewis finds that he doesn’t need to adjust his conception of the keyboard to reduce sonic clutter. He tends to approach a Monk composition like “Little Rootie Tootie,” with its dense chordal accents in the A section, just as he would if at the piano. “I definitely don’t shy away from those 10-note chords,” he says. “They sound monstrous on the B-3, and it works really well for some reason. Maybe it’s the same idea as in gospel, where the power can make churchgoers very emotional.”
It’s obviously portable compared to a pipe organ, but a B-3 is still a beast—around 420 pounds with pedalboard and bench—and its external Leslie rotating speaker system adds 140 pounds. Lewis obviously can’t just jump on the subway with his instrument, and an important part of his development as a professional musician was learning how to move his gear. He says, “If you use a thing like a Roll-or-Kari, which is a dolly used for refrigerators and other large objects—and you take the time to learn to lift properly and bend your knees—it’s not nearly as bad as you think.”
The original B-3 was phased out of production in 1974. Although Hammond’s newer digital versions recreate the instrument’s sound and feel, many players, Lewis included, prefer vintage examples. The original B-3s were built like tanks—“hard to destroy, unless you just literally sit them out in the water or throw them off a cliff or something,” as Lewis, who in 2012 lost a prized old Hammond to Hurricane Sandy flooding, puts it.
As hardy as they are, a Hammond’s internal components need replacing over time, as with any electric instrument. Much of the warmth of old B-3s, however, can be attributed to the degradation of their capacitors, and so it can be disorienting for an organist to plug in a freshly serviced instrument. “It might sound overly bright,” Lewis says. “But you have to remember that’s what it sounded like when it came out of the factory in the ’50s—and so it’s actually more authentic.”