Sunday, December 5, 2010

Greg Lewis

This current post is based on a freewheeling interview with Greg Lewis, one of the most creative jazz organists you’ll ever hear, with a sound all his own. Another one of his passions is the music of Thelonious Monk. A natural result of all this is Greg’s unique and entertaining recent CD, Organ Monk.

Over lunch at a diner in Greenwich Village, we discussed memories of hearing jazz, high school sports, and how Monk influenced him:

I think in a way jazz chose me. Mom said I heard music when I was in her stomach. My grandfather and dad both played piano. Dad would play jazz albums and then try to play the music on the piano. I started on the piano first when I was young. Another of my earliest memories was hearing Coltrane. He was the first musician I ever knew. He was constantly played by my father when I was about 6 or 7, though I thought it was crazy music!

In high school, I played sports and played tuba in the high school band. In sports, I was MVP in football and City champ in wrestling, 190 weight class. They wanted me to go to the Olympics for wrestling, but I liked football better. Also got the JFK Fitness Award and was named Athlete of the Year.

Around 16 or 17, I started liking Monk. I really liked the dissonance. It made him distinct, hearing those funny sounds. My piano chops weren’t good in high school, because all I played was Monk and some r&b. I had a regimen of practicing the piano and figuring how to play tunes by ear.

Everyone expected me to go to college for sports. When I got a full music scholarship for Queensboro Community College, it was just for piano. Eventually went on to The New School for piano studies. I still was always into playing Monk. Even when Roy Hargrove came to the school, he asked, “where’d you learn all that Monk?” I still see him on gigs, ‘cause he plays with Leslie Harrison.

I studied with Jaki Byard, then took lessons with Gil Coggins. When I was sent to sub for an organ gig playing left-hand, I went “what?” Then I started checking all kinds of organ cats.

After a while the conversation turned to discussion of everything organ, including the legends of the music and Hammonds:

Basically I was trying to figure out the organ by listening to those people like Larry Young, who was one of my favorites. Larry Young’s stuff really struck me because first of all you listen to Larry Young, Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Charles Earland—I was even checking out Rhoda Scott. And the list goes on and on. If they were an organ player I was trying to check them out, even to the point where I was checking Chester Thompson and Sly of course. But the one thing that really took to me with Larry Young was that he recorded Monk’s Dream. He was the only one I know of that recorded Monk’s Dream, so when I heard just him and Elvin Jones playing a duet that really made me say, “oh, wait a minute.” And so that’s when, I think, the love came in and I started to obsess over organ. I would play a piano as though I was playing the organ.

One thing I like about the organ. It has so many different sounds, and that’s what’s also intriguing, especially, you know, being a product of the synthesizer era, really the pipe organ was the first synthesizer—really fused sounds, when you think about it. So, I always liked crazy sounds—highs, lows, clicks, cracks. And in some weird way, I think organ is perfect for Monk because, Monk was getting more in-between sounds on the piano. A lot of people say he played in the cracks.

With a pipe organ, you can’t sustain the bass quick enough. The bass is long, so when you play a Hammond, the notes are quicker which is what you need. Cause that stuff that Fats Waller did [on the pipe organ] sounds cool, but it’s weird. But I think that’s the main problem why it sounds weird, because the bassline couldn’t connect quick enough, especially whether it be stride or whether it be walking the bassline, you know the way Jimmy Smith and them did.

I had a Farfisa—that’s one of the first organs I got. I saw it online and got it cheap. That really didn’t do the job, you know. Nothing really works like the Hammond. Lawrence Hammond came up with something special when he made that Hammond organ. No other organ works for the jazz idiom as well.

I believe they sold Hammond to Australia first and then Japan bought it from the company in Australia. But I think it was in the 70s the last Hammonds were made. But they stopped making the Hammond. It was electronic with some tubes and it was kind of cheesy. The B3 and the C3 and the A100 and the RT3 or the 4 are the Hammond organs that work great for jazz because electronically they’re identical. The RT3 has an extra octave on the bass pedals, concave like a pipe organ and the C3 is enclosed so you can’t see the person’s feet, ‘cause the women didn’t want their ankles to be seen—that’s the only reason they made it. They made this in the 50s, so you know back then... And the B3 is the four-legged one that everyone knows and the A100 had its own speakers. The first Hammond that I actually bought was an A100. It had its own speakers, but electronically they’re identical—B3, C3, A100 and RT3. But those are the main ones. The other ones--you can take them or leave them. They’re missing something—they’re missing the bass or they’re missing the highs.

Then we moved on to why Greg eventually focused on jazz rather than r&b:

I was playing Prince tunes and Funkadelic tunes in my teens. But for some reason, somewhere in the late teens I really wanted to be able to play like Monk. So it was back to Monk. If I could say anything, I’d say Monk kept me interested in jazz. And that’s what kept me focused or really changed my mind.

To see an example of Greg in action, click here.

For even more information on Greg Lewis, his music and where you can hear him live, check out his site at

(A slight update to my original post: Greg Lewis has recently released a second recording of music from his Organ Monk project. It's a self-produced cd called Uwo in the Black.)