Thursday, May 27, 2010

Bobbie Lee at the Hammond organ…

This is a promotional photo of my mother taken in the early 1960's from her days playing Hammond B3 organ professionally in Baltimore nightclubs. With her organ playing days now long past the memories I have from hearing her play and teaching me standards when I began playing saxophone remain formidable. Yet in some ways the trajectory from her musical upbringing leading to my own involvement in music is just now becoming more clear to me.

Sometimes I'm asked what kind of music my mother played and I reply that while she did not regard herself as a jazz musician she did play standards in a swinging fashion. There was little improvisation involved but over the years working in clubs she would come up with arrangements and "shout" choruses to these tunes, which I then grew up hearing (and playing) at the many house parties we had. But I was always at something of a loss trying to describe exactly what this was and where it came from.

I was aware that my mother learned to play in church. But by the time I came along she was playing in nightclubs full time. This was in the early '60s at a time when socially it was a big deal not only to be a woman in this field but to have also made that break from the church to the world of secular nightlife and entertainment. The little exposure I had to church services as a kid was to be honest, quite boring. Very reserved and staid affairs. We didn't even go much at all but I'm guessing that the adults in my family thought it was a good idea for me to get some kind of religious upbringing even as my mother had pretty much left the church. But I did realize that the divide between the kind of music I was hearing in church and the kind of music my mother played on the organ was rather enormous. I never thought much about church after that. Of course I recognized certain blues and gospel elements in her sound but I never really knew exactly where she got it from. I assumed that she had somehow learned to play standards like that on her own. But a year or so ago I was talking with her about her upbringing and was surprised to find out that her church experience was very different from what I had assumed. Turns out she was brought up playing piano and organ in the pentecostal church and in her words "the music had to make you move"! Well, that made much more sense to me given the way she played. Turns out her parents left the pentecostal church at some point before I was born and so I had no experience with the type of services she described.

But it really wasn't until more recently that I heard some online clips of church organists playing hymns in a style that I immediately recognized as being very close harmonically, rhythmically and emotionally to what I grew up hearing from my mother. Lots of dominant seventh and diminished chords with a strong beat and more than a hint of gospel tinge. So now my interest is piqued and I've been reading some background information on just how this all came to be. In the early days of the pentecostal movement congregations were racially mixed. The expressive (or even ecstatic) tradition of church services was already established in southern African American churches as well as in white Appalachian services (in which some congregations went so far as to handle deadly snakes as proof of their devotion to God). Over time, white congregations and African American congregations became divided. But the musical seeds had been planted and continued to develop in spite of societal restrictions. One story my mother tells took place when she was just a teenager. She was invited by one of the African American churches in Washington DC to fill in for one of their services. Up until that time she was used to playing a few choruses of the song and that was it. But as she played, the members of the congregation all got up and came over to the organ, encouraging her to continue playing the song over and over as everyone sang and contributed to the mounting energy. As she tells it, they wouldn't let her stop. She laughs about it now, but at the time that was a formidable experience for a young person unaccustomed to that degree of social and musical intensity. My father, Rodd Keith, a keyboardist (as well as occasional saxophonist) was also musically involved in the pentecostal church (which is how my parents met). As a kid I recall my mother playing an elaborate arrangement of "Stand Up for Jesus" that he wrote and taught her back when they were playing together. From what I recall, it certainly had all the ingredients of the kind of music that surely would have gotten people on their feet. But he too had left the church.

In reading about the history of gospel music there is a general sense that white gospel traditions intertwined with southern country music while African American traditions paved the way for R & B and jazz. But my mother's approach was more towards the later as there was really no love of country music in our household. Even my grandfather (an accomplished guitarist and director of music at the church where my mother and father first met) eschewed the type of roots music (or "hillbilly" music as he called it) that he knew from his rural West Virginia upbringing. He was much more into the "pretty chords" that he loved to play on guitar which also extended into the popular tunes he played in Baltimore clubs for a time in the '40s and '50s. My mother had some jazz and R & B records in her collection and ultimately it was the sound of the great R & B tenor stylings of the day that got me into playing. In fact I quickly became a young jazz-snob. I hated rock and roll as a kid. (post script: For the record, I'm proud to say that I've overcome that snobbery. Led Zeppelin rocks and I think Ralph Stanley is one of the most soulful singers I've ever heard in my life.)

So what I'm realizing now is that my mother's organ style when playing standards was not all that different from the way she played those hymns and gospel tunes that she learned in church. It was all about delivering the melody (with a jazz and blues harmonic inflection and an infectious swing feel). Had she taken the next steps of improvising with the right hand she would have been on her way to being a jazz player. But she was all about the songs. And for that I'm quite grateful as it provided me with my own musical roots of a type that are much harder to come by now. I remember making a poster for the elementary school band room that included the names of all the major jazz stars that I gleaned from Langston Hughes' "The First Book of Jazz". At the time I didn't understand just how a scrawny, introverted white kid like myself could have been so into jazz music in the late 1960s. None of the other kids my age knew or liked jazz. Most of my heros were African American. I loved the music of Gene Ammons. Now I can see more clearly why that music resonated with me so strongly. Having heard my mother play from the time I can first remember and later having her teach me many of the songs she played gave me that foundation. And now I understand much better just how she got it.

In writing this I'm suddenly reminded of another small but noteworthy moment from when I was a teenager. I was at home listening to a Horace Silver record (I think it was "Silver and Brass"). Again, my mother never considered herself a jazz musician and in some ways had a fair degree of difficulty with much of the "progressive jazz" (in her words) that I was listening to. As she came into the room she stopped and listened for a moment during one of the piano solos and remarked upon the fact that he was quoting an old obscure church hymn (wish I could remember the title) but superimposing it rather dissonantly over the changes of whatever tune it was they were playing. She was surprised and a little puzzled to hear that tune in that context. And I was impressed and puzzled myself over the fact that she knew whatever hymn that was and could pick it out since I had no clue that was even going on in the music.

Being in no way religious myself the significance of much of this had less of an impact on me growing up than it does in retrospect years later. At that time I was striving to get a hold on post-Coltrane saxophone playing which was going strong in the '70s. (By the way, Bob Berg played amazingly on that Horace Silver record!) But it all makes total sense now. Everything comes from somewhere.

"Bobbie Lee" played the Great American Songbook night after night in the clubs but with the advent of rock and roll that scene too came to a close. I still have some old cassettes from some of our house parties. I don't know that I'll ever have the courage to let anyone else hear what I sounded like in those first few years of learning the horn. My mother still sounded good even though these recordings were made about a decade after she stopped playing regularly. Here are a couple of exceprts:

Satin Doll

Oh, and one of the clips that I referred to earlier that got me thinking about all of this is a video of organist Eddie Howard explaining the difference between the Pentecostal style of organ playing and the style used in the "Church of God and Christ". It's rather short but as soon as I heard those chords they just knocked me over. It's the very style of playing that my mother comes from…


  1. great post Ellery ! i share it now on twitter and facebook. Thanks !

  2. Interesting read. But your mother isn't playing a Hammond B3 in that photo. That's actually a Gulbransen Model E Theatre, 1959 vintage. Not so good for jazz organ sounds but perfect for the mellow moods of much of the GASB.

  3. Andrew,
    True, not a Hammond in that photo. For a time she had to play whatever was offered. Mostly it was a B3 but sometimes not. But eventually she got her own. I also remember Conn had an organ around that time as well. Thanks, EE

  4. Your mother smile is so pretty Ellery! I just love reading this article and video too.

  5. I knew your mothers parents quite well when they attended the Church of God in Dundalk, Maryland. Not a Pentecostal church, but more of a Baptist spin off.
    I was Choir director there for a while and your mother played a few times. She was great. My Dad attended her brother Lee’s wedding and it looks like she played for that too.
    Always wondered what happened to her and if she’s still around.
    Ken Hoffman

  6. Ken, thank you for making contact. Please contact me by email

  7. ellery.eskelin @ (remove the spaces)