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Music: Remembering Jazz Organist Jimmy McGriff

For a span of several years in the 1960s, you couldn't walk through wide swaths of Philadelphia without hearing the burble of a Hammond B3 organ. The instrument came to embody a hip-hugging Philly jazz sound that was equal parts churchyard hum, speakeasy sizzle and slash-and-burn bar-room blooze. And few would master the jazz organ sound like Jimmy McGriff, who served up heaping slabs of greasy cheesesteak funk on and off for four decades until his death this week, at 72, of multiple sclerosis.

Born to two piano-playing parents in Germantown, Pa., in 1936, James Harrell McGriff began learning drums at eight and would know his way around the alto saxophone, piano, upright bass and vibes by the time he graduated from high school. But a career in music would have to wait. McGriff was drafted after graduating and served as a military policeman in the Korean War. Upon returning he'd gig at night (the upright bass would be his instrument of choice for several years) and spend his days on the Philadelphia police force. The City of Brotherly Love was a fertile environment for any young musician in the early 1950s: Officer McGriff would spend his evenings playing bass behind marquee vocalists such as Carmen McCrae and Big Maybelle.
 
It was around this time that an older neighborhood kid began making waves with the Hammond B3—a fairly unhip choice for a gigging jazz and R&B musician at that time. But Jimmy Smith filtered blues, bebop, R&B and gospel through the instrument, changing the conventional wisdom on the organ for good. His hard-charging house party sound would influence local musicians and go on to shape national trends. One of his protégés, Richard "Groove" Holmes, played at McGriff's sister's wedding (who played at yours?) and would ultimately become a mentor to McGriff when bass playing gigs started drying up.  
 
McGriff bought his first B3 in 1956, stored it at avant-garde pianist Archie Shepp's house and, after six months of practice, quit the force. The high school grad enrolled at a local school to study music. He must have excelled at Combe College, because he'd ultimately transfer to the Juilliard School of Music (located in New York, conveniently allowing McGriff to do a little extracurricular woodshedding with Smith, among others). Success was quick to follow: his first recording, "Foxy Due," was cut in 1958. The combo featured a saxophonist named Charles Earland, who would himself switch to organ before long and become forever associated with the instrument in his own right.
 
While playing at a Trenton club in 1961, McGriff was invited by a small independent label called Jell to record an instrumental version of a Ray Charles hit. "I've Got a Woman" sold well enough regionally for a New York label to gamble on wider distribution. Few would have predicted it, but with the help of the Sue imprint, the single would land on the national top 20 charts, climbing into the top five on the R&B side, all on the strength of its chugging gospel pulse and that B3 grind. Capitalizing on the momentum, Sue quickly released an album of bluesy organ jams in 1963. Called "I've Got a Woman," the record featured two more charting originals and was a bona fide crossover pop hit.
 
Five more albums followed over the next three years, many of them successful, including a Christmas album and a lushly arranged collection of soundtrack themes. In 1966 McGriff moved over to producer Sonny Lester's upstart Solid State label, where he continued to record in an array of styles, including a big band tribute to Count Basie. But for all the variety, the unyielding constant in his music was the blues—a perfect amalgam of gospel churn and sinful yearn. Look no further than his biggest Solid State-era single, 1968's "The Worm." As familiar to a younger generation of hip-hop and breakbeat fans as it was to their bellbottomed parents, "The Worm" is an infectious invertebrate of an instrumental: all wiggle and slither.
 
After a failed retirement (he tried horse farming in Connecticut; it didn't take) McGriff continued to record throughout the '70s. But his populist blues-based jazz fell out of favor with the rise of jazz-rock fusion and disco. McGriff put on a brave face, gamely showing up for slick electric jazz-funk outings alongside old-school organ trio dates. After a brief recording lull, the early '80s saw him return to his original soul-jazz style through a rich collaboration with saxophonist Hank Crawford.
 
By the mid-'90s the sound he helped pioneer had become hip again. Suddenly he was in demand at big gigs and festivals at home and in the U.K., where his brand of music is particularly appreciated. With Ray Charles saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman and funk drummer Bernard "Pretty" Purdie, McGriff formed the Dream Team and recorded a spate of albums in his classic juke-joint style up until 2002's backward-looking "McGriff Avenue." The trio's gigs were cooking lessons in disguise; McGriff once said that the secret to his live shows was playing to the audience member who was having the least fun. "Once you get that person," he said, "you got the whole club."
 
As his health began to decline, McGriff slowly receded from the spotlight. The gigging continued for as long as he was able. But by 2007 he was so weak he posted a message of thanks—which sounded a little too much like farewell—on his Web site. "I HAVE BEEN A LITTLE UNDER THE WEATHER AND I AM STILL NOT MYSELF," he wrote. "MIRACLES HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO HAPPEN AND IF GOD GIVES ME THAT MIRACLE, I PROMISE TO LET YOU KNOW THAT I WILL COME BACK AND GIVE YOU ALL THAT I HAVE TO GIVE." There were no miracles this week. But in that final public note of optimism there are echoes of Jimmy McGriff's joyful Hammond noise.