Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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McGriff, Jimmy (James Harrell)

Organist Jimmy McGriff had an open mind, and would set up his bench in the midst of any conglomeration of musicians. His more than 80 albums are a kaleidoscope of contexts, ranging from organ trios to large funk ensembles, and even "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." McGriff's lyrical and pocketed riff-based solos are the only constant, which never fail to capture a listener's attention.

James Harrell McGriff, Jr. was born in Philadelphia on April 3, 1936. The son of two pianists, McGriff often stated he began playing sometime around his fifth birthday, though he did not receive formal lessons at that time.

Many sources suggest McGriff switched to the organ as an adult after witnessing a Richard “Groove” Holmes perform, but he asserted that his father started him on the instrument only a couple of years after he began playing piano, and that his interest in the sound of the organ was related to the music he heard weekly at church. As a youth, McGriff also learned to play the bass and saxophone, and worked professionally as a bassist with rhythm 'n' blues vocalist Big Maybelle.

McGriff served in the U.S. Army in the early 1950s, and spent much his stint serving as a military policeman in Korea. Upon his return to Philadelphia, McGriff worked for nearly three years as a police officer.

McGriff also returned to his work as a bassist with Big Maybelle, who held a regular gig in Philadelphia at Pep’s Showboat, and other vocalists such as Carmen McRae. Around 1956, McGriff switched to the organ, and began studying the instrument with Richard “Groove” Holmes while also furthering his musical education with classes at Juilliard and Combe College of Music in Philadelphia.

McGriff recorded his first sides, “Foxy Do (pt 1)” and “Foxy Do (pt 2),” for the White Rock label in 1960. He entered the studio again in 1962 with guitarist Morris Dow and drummer Jackie Mills to record an instrumental version of “I’ve Got a Woman,” by Renald Richard and Ray Charles, for Jell Records.

McGriff opens this song much as Ray Charles might, binding a few legato chords together with flurries of free-time blues scale riffs. Soon after, McGriff plays a one-bar, four-note bass line on the pedals, and Mills and Dow join with a driving oom-pah gospel beat. An unnamed tambourine player contributes to the sanctity of the groove as well. At this point, McGriff’s upper half switches gears, employing the thick sonority, sustain, and sheer volume of his Hammond organ to coast above the short ostinato of the rhythm section.

As would often be the case throughout his career, regardless of musical setting, McGriff’s organ plays the lead voice on this track, yet he is not soloing in the traditional jazz sense. Rather, McGriff challenges the rhythm section by alternating between short staccato phrases which resemble a gospel singer’s improvisations, and longer statements that employ the organ’s tireless sustain to stack tones and build tension.

McGriff often defined his approach to organ as outside of jazz, calling himself a “blues organist” at times or pointing out that “what I do most on the organ comes from the church, and that’s where the blues come from.” On “I’ve Got a Woman,” one can hear the distinction. Unlike most jazz solos, which conventionally develop thematically towards a climax and conclusion, McGriff's cool pacing and the large swaths of space within his solo lead one to believe he is limited only by the length of Jell’s acetate; it sounds as if he could testify for days.

McGriff's instrumental version of “I’ve Got a Woman” proved to be a regional hit, which prompted Sue Records to purchase the rights to the single and record a full album by McGriff’s trio. This track, along with two other jukebox-length singles from the album, “M.G. Blues” and “All About My Girl,” firmly established McGriff's reputation as a player of instrumental rhythm 'n' blues.

Between 1962 and 1965, McGriff recorded seven albums for Sue Records, most of which closely followed a trio format of organ, drums, and guitar. However, in 1964 McGriff performed lead organ over the pre-recorded soundtrack to the heist film Topkapi, resulting in a strange album which is a testament to the organist’s willingness to try almost anything.

In 1966, McGriff signed to the Solid State label, inaugurating a relationship with producer Sonny Lester which resulted in twenty-four albums. Over the next decade, Lester recorded McGriff in a strikingly wide array of musical contexts, often commissioning arrangements of recent pop hits for the varied groups to perform. While Lester’s song selections were often transparently commercial, McGriff managed to enliven almost all of them with the fiery spirit of his early hits.

For instance, McGriff's 1966 release Cherry features a slightly expanded group with the addition of bassist Milt Hinton - Lester rarely left the bottom end to McGriff alone - and a second guitar. The group performs a grab bag of radio- and jukebox-friendly songs including “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Tequila.” Nonetheless the group, propelled also by the aerobic drumming of Grady Tate, assumes full ownership of the material, convincingly demonstrating sophisticated jazz aesthetic sensibility within the relatively narrow parameters of a pop instrumental single.

McGriff excelled in the large group environment of Lester’s productions in the late 1960s. For instance, on “Back on the Track” from the 1969 album Electric Funk, by "Jimmy McGriff and his Orchestra," which was reissued on CD by Blue Note, the organist milks the exaggerated dynamics of Horace Ott’s arrangement, tinkling a percussive sound on his upper manual in quiet moments, and flooring his volume pedal for his joyous melodic outbursts above the tune’s several climaxes.

McGriff’s biggest commercial success in this era was a song called “The Worm” from the 1968 album of the same name, a funk track centered around a Blue Mitchell trumpet solo and Fats Theus’s Varitone sax on which McGriff solos only during the fadeout.

McGriff’s three LP releases for Alfred Lion's Blue Note label, all recorded in 1970 and 1971, demonstrate both a return to the simple blues form tunes of his early recordings as well as a continued effort to craft short jukebox-friendly singles. Black Pearl, recorded live at The Golden Slipper, a Newark club McGriff owned and operated for a short period in the late 1960s and early 1970s, features a standard organ trio with four added horns blowing on tunes such as “Satin Doll” and “C Jam Blues.” Soul Sugar features a larger group driven by the energetic funk drumming of Marion Booker and the dry, busy, and pocketed electric bass of Richard Davis performing short takes of tunes by Stevie Wonder and James Brown, as well as originals such as “Fat Cakes,” a samba-infused funk track on which the whole group shouts the title as a refrain.

After his brief tenure at Blue Note, McGriff resumed work with Lester, this time for his Groove Merchant imprint. The settings were again quite varied, including Good Things Don’t Happen Every Day with singer Junior Parker, the double-organ album Come Together with Richard “Groove” Holmes, funk recordings such as Groove Grease, Fly Dude, and Let’s Stay Together, and live recordings such as Live at Cook County Jail.

McGriff also recorded The Last Blues Album with drummer Buddy Rich, and several disco-influenced recordings, including The Mean Machine and Red Beans, which were almost symphonic in scale. While the arrangements and production of McGriff’s 1970s recordings sounddated at times, his performances on the organ and occasionally the Fender Rhodes are inspired.

After sporadic output on several labels in the late 1970s and early 1980s, McGriff signed with Milestone in 1983. Over the next 18 years, he recorded 14 albums for the label, continuing his exploration of funk and electronics on albums such as State of the Art in 1985, then returning to his jazz and blues roots on The Starting Five in 1986 and The Dream Team in 1996. Five of his albums for Milestone were with groups he co-led with saxophonist Hank Crawford.

McGriff died on May 24, 2008, as a result of medical complications related to multiple sclerosis, a condition he had battled for well over a decade.

Contributor: Bill Carbone