Talking Jazz

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The Independent Culture

Go to the Upper West Side of New York on a Tuesday evening, along Broadway at the part where it snakes West, between 105th and 106th Street, and a very distinctive sound will greet you. Look past a huddle of puffers who can no longer indulge their habit, even inside in a jazz club called Smoke, to a long, high-ceilinged room with a short dais. On this, like a pulpit, stands one of the 20th century's greatest creations - a Hammond B3 organ.

The Hammond, with its two manuals, pedals, 18 stops and built-in stool, encased in a solid walnut body, was first built in 1935 with the "leisure market" in mind. But by the time it reached its teens it had moved away from the fairground and cinema and, in the hands of pioneers like Jimmy Smith, been turned into a swaggering young male.

With its multiplicity of voicings, the Hammond can both carry a tune and solo like a horn; its pedals make a bass superfluous; and a funkier keyboard has yet to be invented - which explains its popularity in soul-jazz and 1960s and 1970s rock. As for acid jazz - it simply could not have existed without the Hammond.

Smoke is the kind of club you wish you could find in London. It is free, open late, intimate (the red velvet, sconce-lined room only seats 70) and a haven for devotees of the Hammond. The night I went, the resident trio included the guitarist Paul Bollenback, a regular sideman with the organ's young torch-bearer, Joey DeFrancesco. The next night Dr Lonnie Smith was due on stage, clad as ever in turban and flowing robes. Smith's sound contributed to such well-known numbers as Lou Donaldson's 1967 hit, "Alligator Boogaloo". The headgear is so integral to his image that he even called one his albums "The Turbanator".

Perhaps because it is such a flamboyant instrument, the Hammond seems to attract eccentrics. I've seen DeFrancesco hold down a note, walk round the organ and continue playing it from the other side, and then transfer the duty of bearing pressure on the keyboard to his elbow. A friend reports going to see Jimmy Smith at the Jazz Café in London, only to hear Smith announce "I'm going for a shit" after four numbers, from which interlude the organist failed to return.

No such emergency evacuation struck Smoke the night I visited. That sweet, dirty sound just filled the bar. Booker T Jones (of Booker T and the MGs) once explained the appeal of the Hammond: "It's those funky beats. Uh huh."