Considering that the Hammond Organ Company built the last B-3 organ some four decades ago, the unwieldy-but-sweet-sounding instrument is enjoying something of a moment in the Bay Area's jazz scene.
Popularized by Jimmy Smith shortly after Hammond introduced the powerful model in the mid-1950s, the B-3 traffics in soul -- especially when coupled with its famous counterpart, the Leslie speaker, which wheels two speaker horns on a fast-spinning axis for a moving sound. Bringing the sanctified cadences of the African American church into neighborhood bars and nightspots, the organ quickly transferred the sounds of Sunday morning worship to Saturday night celebration.
After a decade-long reign as the populist bridge between the worlds of jazz, gospel, blues, and R&B, the B-3 organ quickly fell out of style in the late 1960s, and Hammond closed for business in 1975. The Bay Area was never considered a B-3 hotbed like Philly or New York, but the region now boasts at least seven rooms with permanent resident B-3s, including Oakland’s Penrose, as well as San Francisco’s Royal Cuckoo, Club Deluxe, the Boom Boom Room, Madrone Art Bar, and Jacks Cannery Bar. Even up in Petaluma at The Big Easy, there's a B-3 always on the stage.
“I feel like there are more places here with B-3s in clubs than anywhere, maybe even New York,” says Wil Blades, by far the most visible B-3 player in the region. Blades performs with his long-running duo partner, drummer Scott Amendola, in Amendola vs. Blades at the Ivy Room in Albany on Saturday, July 23. He brings his sinewy trio to the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest on Aug. 13-14, hits the Boom Boom Room with the Headhunters on Aug. 19-20, and opens for Wilco at the Fillmore with Amendola on Sept. 7.
Why does it matter whether or not a club owns a B-3? Weighing over 400 pounds, the instrument is a beast to move around. “As I get older, it makes all the difference when I can walk into a club and not have to lug a big piece of furniture,” says Blades, who was mentored by B-3 legend Dr. Lonnie Smith, one of the few surviving masters from the B-3’s golden age. Last month, Smith was named a 2017 NEA Jazz Master, making him only the second organist to earn the distinction (Jimmy Smith was the first, back in 2005).
Doug Carn is another charter member of the old-school B-3 brotherhood (which in fact includes a stronger sisterhood than any other instrument, from Carn's mentor Shirley Scott and Rhoda Scott to Barbara Dennerlein, Amina Claudine Myers and Atsuko Hashimoto). He returns to the Bay Area this week for a series of gigs, including Thursday, July 14 at Oakland’s Sound Room, Friday, July 15 at Savanna Jazz in San Carlos, and Saturday, July 16 at San Jose’s Café Stritch, a venue that regularly books B-3 players.
An innovative player and composer who recorded a series of seminal post-bop recordings for the Black Jazz label in the 1970s, Carn walked away from the organ at the end of the decade when he felt piano was a better career bet. But a resurgence of interest in the B-3 brought him back to the instrument, and he released his first new album in decades last year with My Spirit (Doodlin’ Records), featuring a combustible Bay Area quartet with saxophonists Teodross Avery and Howard Wiley and drummer Dezson Claiborne. Carn recorded the album live at Kuumbwa in Santa Cruz, focusing on his coruscating originals and consistently smart arrangements of tunes by Lee Morgan, Sonny Stitt and Horace Silver.
“Those two horn players are bad!” Carn says. “They feed off of each other, and Deszon has his own unique style. He’ll trip you up if you’re not paying attention. I’ve been developing new music and new arrangements of familiar themes for these shows, great jazz tunes that I was learning how to play in my 20s. It’s wonderful to get with these younger guys. Well, young to me. I’ll be 68 on Thursday at the Sound Room, but I go all the way back to Jimmy McGriff, Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith, and Shirley Scott.”
Most of the Bay Area’s old school B-3 maestros are gone, like jazz expert Ed Kelly, bluesman Jackie Ivory, and the uncategorizable Merl Saunders, though Chester “CT” Thompson has gradually reemerged as a force since retiring from Carlos Santana's band in 2009. One reason the B-3 is flourishing in the Bay Area is KCSM DJ and Doodlin’ Lounge host Pete Fallico, a tireless champion of the instrument. Fallico produced Carn’s recent album, and has made a point of presenting concerts featuring established masters and supporting younger players, like Brian Ho.
One of the new voices on the instrument who’s thriving on Bay Area scene is Lorenzo Farrell. But he isn’t a younger player -- he’s a veteran blues bassist who tours with Rick Estrin and the Night Cats. Farrell came to the B-3 about a decade ago, and largely taught himself how to play by watching videos. He can be found three afternoons a week at Jacks Cannery Bar with guitarist Ned Boynton, but his most interesting gig is with guitarist Myles Boisen’s Miniwatt Quartet, a New Orleans funk-informed combo with guitarist John Preuss and violinist John Ettinger that plays The Portal near Lake Merritt on July 21.
The other reason the B-3 continues to flourish here is the East Bay gospel scene, which features a wealth of organ talent, such as Carl Wheeler, Frankie Beverly, Sylvester Burks, and Daniel Hawkins. Oakland’s Sundra Manning came up playing organ in church, and cites Wheeler as a primary influence. She’s toured with gospel legend James Cleveland and and traveled the world with MC Hammer -- and collaborated with Ledisi and Raphael Saadiq, and gigged with Larry Graham -- but these days she mostly gets hired for production and piano gigs. The B-3 is her first love, and she’s on the lookout for a residency at one of the Bay Area’s organ rooms.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the organ,” Manning says. “I loved the vibration, so commanding and powerful. Nothing else vibrates like a real Hammond and the real Leslie speakers. You can be percussive or smooth and mellow. There are so many colors.”
Let’s hope she finds a canvas soon.