I don't normally write about my own musical endeavors in my column, but I'm pretty proud of this one.
A couple months ago, I received an e-mail from a guitarist friend in Pittsburgh asking me if I'd be interested in joining his planned soul-jazz band.
I didn't hesitate for one second in saying yes, because not only do I love the music, but also love playing with my buddy Wayne, who shares a love for the predominantly black music from the early '60s through the 1970s.
So, we've got six, funky white boys playing instrumental music from this era that's a real fun blend of jazz, soul, blues, R&B, pop and any other name you could think of.
So now it's developed into these white boys playing music that was aimed at a black audience during that time period. That's my band, appropriately called the Cadillac Club.
So, what is "soul-jazz," and what's it all about?
In my opinion, it's crossover from the young black jazz artists of the time who were listening to the great pop music coming out of Detroit - Motown - black, urban blues artists like B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Ray Charles - who already had been crossing genres since releases for the Atlantic label in the 1950s - but mostly the Godfather of Soul, the one and only James Brown.
Audiences in that time period were changing, too. Jazz was losing its audience, while guys who were gritty, sophisticated and funky like James were killing black urban audiences. Jazz cats were picking up on this trend and a whole slew of jazzers on the New York City-based Blue Note label and the independent label Prestige began urging their roster to "get funky" - infuse the sophistication of jazz with some down-home, supercharged blues licks while at the same time trying to make it danceable for the club scene.
A lot of black jazz artists didn't need to hear this twice, as they already were digging the new scene, and began getting funky while keeping one foot in jazz.
A perfect example of soul-jazz crossover might be "The Sidewinder," recorded for Blue Note in 1964 by the serious jazz trumpet player Lee Morgan. "The Sidewinder" is a simple cocktail of horn riffs, blasts of bluesy trumpet and a funky, danceable rhythm.
Now, most Blue Note releases would sell a couple of thousand albums, and Lee Morgan, make no mistake, was a serious jazz artist. But he also was young, hip and wasn't afraid to try new things.
To the surprise of all, not only was "The Sidewinder" a hit, it was a huge hit with black urban audiences and whites who loved to dance. Blue Note, a pretty small, independent label, had to keep pressing more and more of the single to keep up with demand, and the song eventually made it to No. 25 on the pop charts.
For a jazz artist to chart a single into the top 100 on Billboard was unheard of at the time, and soon other jazz artists followed suit.
Pretty soon there were dozens of jazz musicians seeking gold in the new soul-jazz genre. By the late 1960s the typical soul-jazz group consisted of a horn player or two, a guitarist and a Hammond B-3 organ wizard. Some jazz artists who had struggled for years all of a sudden had huge hits and became stars - organ players such as "Brother" Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and the baddest of them all, Jimmy Smith, were issuing albums of scorching jazz and soul music.
Another pioneer in the genre was Blue Note guitarist Grant Green, who all but abandoned "straight" jazz in the late 1960s and issued several albums on Blue Note full of funk and covers of James Brown tunes along with his own quirky originals.
By the way, a young Pittsburgh-born and bred guitarist by the name of George Benson began his career by playing soul-jazz with Jack McDuff. I have his first solo album on vinyl, recorded in 1962.
What's even more remarkable is some of the "pop-soul" artists began emulating the jazz guys by issuing catchy instrumentals aimed at the AM radio audience and young blacks and whites. One of the most successful of these was the band Booker T and the MGs, a mixed race band that had hits with soulful instrumentals such as "Green Onions" and "Time is Tight," which my band plays.
It was a heady time for both soul music and jazz music as each genre gave the other a lift. Soul-jazz gave straight jazz a much-needed kick in the pants, while soul music found a new sophistication by borrowing the chops from jazz artists.
Today the era is revered by guys like myself who love the sound of a horn or guitar riffing with a Hammond B-3 organ. It's also a golden era to modern hip-hop artists, who regularly sample the riffs of that era and incorporate them into their sound. They are keeping it real, because the music was real.
I'm going to help keep the genre alive by playing in this band. Wish us good luck.