"They're always classifying me as a jazz organist,
which I am not," states Jimmy McGriff. "I'm more of a blues
organ player. That's really what I feel."
Blues has been the musical backbone of most of the major jazz
organists, including Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, but throughout his 40-year
recording career, McGriff has stuck closer to the blues than any of them. During
the Sixties, his recordings of "I've Got a Woman" and "All About
My Girl" were r&b radio and jukebox staples. And on Straight Up,
his eleventh album for Milestone Records (counting the four he cut as co-leader
with Hank Crawford), the Hammond organ master remains steeped in the blues.
Like last year's The Dream Team (which marked McGriff's
return to Milestone after a seven-year break), Straight Up finds him
working with soul-jazz producer Bob Porter and legendary engineer Rudy Van
Gelder. McGriff's cohorts on the new date--saxophonists David
"Fathead" Newman and Frank Wess, guitarists Rodney Jones and Wayne
Boyd, drummer Bernard Purdie--are all frequent associates who can be trusted to
follow his direction and make inspired contributions of their own. In fact,
Fathead and Jones contributed tunes to the date, as did McGriff himself; the
band also works out on the Isleys' "It's Your Thing" and Sonny
Rollins's "Oleo," as well as a pair of standards.
James Harrell McGriff was born on April 3, 1936 in
Philadelphia, which had become the organ town by the time he was grown.
Such pioneering jazz organists as Milt Buckner and Wild Bill Davis frequently
passed through Philadelphia, and it was there that Jimmy Smith laid the
groundwork for modern jazz organ. Other organ greats associated with the City of
Brotherly Love include Doc Bagley, Shirley Scott, Richard "Groove"
Holmes, Joey DeFrancesco, and Charles Earland. In fact, Earland, who had played
saxophone on McGriff's very first recording, a 1959 single on the White Marsh
label titled "Foxy Due," learned the organ from McGriff.
Although both his mother and father were pianists, young Jimmy
McGriff started out on bass and saxophone. By the time he'd finished Roosevelt
and Germantown High Schools, he was also playing drums, vibes, and piano.
McGriff's first career was not as a musician but as a cop.
Having served as an MP during the Korean War, he enrolled at the Penn Institute
of Criminology, then worked on the Philadelphia police force for two and a half
years. "I wasn't satisfied because my mind wasn't really into doing
it," explains McGriff, who began moonlighting during off-duty hours as a
bassist at Pep's Showboat club, playing behind blues singer Big Maybelle and
other stars of the Fifties.
Finally leaving law enforcement, McGriff decided to
concentrate on organ and studied at Philadelphia's Combe College of Music and at
Juilliard in New York City, as well as privately with Jimmy Smith,
"Groove" Holmes, Milt Buckner, and classical organist Sonny Gatewood.
Of even greater importance to McGriff's musical development, however, were his
experiences as a young man at Philadelphia's Eastern Star Baptist Church.
"They talk about who taught me this and who taught me that, but the basic
idea of what I'm doing on the organ came from the church," he explains.
"That's how I got it, and I just never dropped it." Although he never
played regularly in church, McGriff had the opportunity in 1990 to lend his
church-hewn organ stylings to the Grammy Award-winning gospel album Tramaine
Hawkins Live, on which he played alongside Carlos Santana.
In 1962, when McGriff was performing in Trenton, New Jersey, a
scout from a tiny record label called Jell heard his instrumental arrangement of
Ray Charles's "I've Got a Woman" and offered him a contract. As
McGriff's single began to take off, Juggy Murray's New York-based Sue label
purchased the master and it became a smash, going all the way to No. 5 on Billboard's
r&b chart and to No. 20 on the pop chart. With that and such subsequent Sue
singles as "All About My Girl," "M.G. Blues," and "Bump
De Bump," McGriff staked out a musical territory all his own, somewhere
between the jazz of Jimmy Smith and the r&b of Booker T. & the MGs.
After leaving Sue Records, McGriff continued to record
prolifically for such companies as Solid State, Blue Note, Capitol, United
Artists, Groove Merchant, and JAM. Reaffirming his blues roots, he also cut a
couple of albums as co-leader with legendary blues singer and harmonica player
McGriff is today busier than ever, criss-crossing the globe
with his own fine combo or with the one he co-leads with alto saxophone great
Hank Crawford. He's also conducted a number of master classes over the last
couple of years, and feels that he gains as much from the experience as do his
Renewed interest in Hammond organ jazz over the past few years
has substantially increased demand for McGriff's music. "People that didn't
listen to organ things before listen now," he says. "I'm playing jobs
that ordinarily I wouldn't play."
Although McGriff had used a Hammond B-3 from the onset of his
career as an organist, he recently switched to a modified model known as the Hammond
XB-3. "They have a box that hooks up with the organ," he explains.
"It gives you the piano sound, the string sounds, the big-band sounds, and
all of that. When you hear the album, you hear the horns, and if you pay it
close attention, you'll hear something else that comes in there. That's the
By returning to Milestone Records with the winning mix of
blues, swing, funk, and gospel-derived sounds heard on The Dream Team and
Straight Up, Jimmy McGriff reaffirms his position as a true giant of the
Hammond organ and as one of the bluesiest players ever to be called a jazz
musician. Latest release is Mcgriff's