Onstage with Steve Miller at Jazz at Lincoln Center in early December, the guitarist Jimmie Vaughan, Texas blues royalty at age 66, used his generous solo spots to invoke history. Electric blues guitar, with its rough-edged phrasing and tonal grit, saw that winsome rawness smoothed over as blues-rock became a virtuoso’s medium (see Vaughan’s iconic little brother, Stevie Ray). But Vaughan’s playing imagined a world in which T-Bone Walker and Gatemouth Brown are still playing one-nighters, and the British Invasion and Jimi Hendrix never happened. Like Lou Donaldson or Loretta Lynn, he delivers an unmistakable and distinctly American sound that is equally rousing and comforting.
Over the past few years, Vaughan has taken his midcentury vibe to the organ-trio format, and a recent album, Live at C-Boy’s (Proper), captured at an Austin joint where Vaughan enjoys a regular gig, looks toward a bygone era of greasy grooves in corner bars. Recorded with the late, great Texan Frosty Smith on drums and organist Mike Flanigin—a disciple of Big John Patton who also appeared with Vaughan at JALC—the record delivers all the populist fun you could want from a dusty old organ LP: the on-the-spot arrangements of tunes learned by ear; the blues-based harmonies with touches of jazz learning; the funk-laced sense of swing; the Beatles cover. Vaughan wouldn’t have it any other way. “I don’t want [music] to be a job,” he told me in New York last year, seated next to Flanigin in a posh hotel lobby. “Even though I work hard at it, you don’t want to think of it that way.”
JazzTimes: The organ-jazz tradition is probably better associated with cities like Philadelphia or New York, but talk a bit about the organ groups you heard growing up in Texas.
Vaughan: When I was a kid—13, 14, 15—it was popular music. It was on the radio. It was on the black stations, and there’d be instrumentals before and after the news, and certain times of the day they’d play instrumentals. Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff—all those guys were very popular. On their albums they would do pop tunes, whatever was big, and the rest would be jazz tunes and standards.
Even though I couldn’t play it I enjoyed it. There were so many organ trios in Dallas-Fort Worth. Everybody had an organ. Back then they had residencies; especially in Dallas, if you played in a joint you would play there six nights a week.
We still have organ trios, and we still have jazz clubs where you can see them. But that idea of a cool beer joint with an organ trio, that tradition has faded. Do you feel like you’re carrying that torch in some way?
Flanigin: People will dance. It’s a neighborhood vibe. Back in the ’60s, those guys weren’t playing the Village Vanguard.
Vaughan: Not every night [laughs].
Flanigin: They were playing the circuit, and they were playing neighborhood bars where people would be loud and have fun and dance and have a good time. We’re in that time machine. All the stuff that’s happening now, we don’t even think about it. We think we’re in the ’60s [Vaughan chuckles]. We think Jimmy McGriff’s down the street with his band, and we’re in the club with our band.
Vaughan: That’s what we’re pretending [laughs].
The program here is inspired, and wide-ranging—Gatemouth Brown, Slide Hampton, the Beatles. How do you go about picking tunes?
Vaughan: It’s not a hard thing. We both like everything we do, and I’ve heard a lot of that stuff from what I told you about when I was a kid. I would have Jimmy Smith records and Jack McDuff records, and Mike knows all about that stuff.
The thing about this band that’s different is I’m not a jazz guy. I can play kinda jazzy, but I’m not a really a jazz guy. I’m a student of that. I’m learning. I got a couple of guys that are jazz guitar players—I call ’em up and go, “Hey, man, what happens on this bridge? I can’t figure it out.” And they go, “Well, hey, dummy, that’s a B-flat.” And I go, “Ohhh.” But what happens with us is that Mike knows about the blues too, like the lowdown stuff, so we’ve brought the B-3 trio into that. If you come see us, we do Gatemouth Brown and we do a lot of stuff that you may not have heard an organ trio do.
Flanigin: That’s probably the one thing we brought that you wouldn’t think of—like, how would Jimmy Reed work with an organ trio? Somehow it works.
But that [jazz] stuff is in Jimmie’s consciousness from when he started. The first time I went over to his house, he started playing, from memory—I’m sure he hadn’t played it in forever—Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land.”
Jimmie, have you been influenced much by horn players?
Yeah, my favorite is Gene Ammons, but there’s a million guys. And we’ve run across people who are playing now who are great. Don Braden has sat in when he’s been in Austin.
Mike, who are the organists you paid attention to most?
The three guys I kind of followed: Baby Face Willette, Freddie Roach and Big John Patton. And of course Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff—I love all those guys too. I went up to the Northeast and Big John Patton really kind of straightened me out and showed me everything [in the early 2000s]. But I had all those records down in Texas, and I met all those guys eventually—Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack, Jimmy McGriff.
Tell me about playing with Frosty and what he brought to the band.
Flanigin: The thing about Frosty was, when I was first starting, I knew I had to find an organ drummer. Ben Dixon, Donald Bailey—those guys were jazz drummers but they were also organ drummers. It’s a different job. They have different tasks in the band. If you’re an organist, the hardest thing is finding a drummer who can do that, because they have to have great time, and they have to play a certain way. It’s not Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet.
Frosty came out of [the organ tradition]. He had played it early on, and he had his group with Lee Michaels, which was just a duo. Frosty was my guy.
Vaughan: Frosty was like a merry-go-round. When you were playing with Frosty, you’d kind of run along and jump in and ride. … He didn’t make you think about what kind of music you were playing while you were playing it; he just made it groovy.
Flanigin: And he always knew what you were talking about, like if you mentioned Bill Doggett. He knew everything, and he would do his own take on everything. Now we have George [Rains], who cut a record with Fathead Newman and comes from that same era. So, thank goodness. The drummer’s so important, in every group. I always say your group’s only as good as your drummer.
Jimmie, your brother’s version of Kenny Burrell’s “Chitlins Con Carne” is fantastic. Did you and Stevie share jazz guitar influences?
Oh yeah. I’m the oldest, so I’m the one who brought home the guitar and the records at first. The first records that I had were by Kenny Burrell. I knew how to copy the head, and then when it got to the jazz part in the middle, I’d go, “I don’t know what that is.”
I would play Midnight Blue by Kenny Burrell like five times a day. I’d play it before I went to school and when I got home. The same with Albert King, Albert Collins, all that stuff. I’d go down to the record store and find one guy, and I’d read the back and it said Buddy Guy likes B.B. King and Guitar Slim. And then I’d get into [them]. Also, it was the anti from what I was supposed to be doing. So I loved it; it was my little secret world.
Image: Jimmie Vaughan flanked by drummer George Rains (left) and organist Mike Flanigin (credit: Todd V. Wolfson)
This conversation was edited for space and clarity.