O Captain, my Captain
One of the true Hammond heroes has left us. Nick Rossi remembers Jack McDuff, who died on January 24, 2001
Unforgettable. Taking refuge from the warm California summer sun in the cool basement of a record store, I flipped through the racks until I saw it. Set against a grimy backdrop, was Jack McDuff dressed like a million dollars and some change; plaid sports-jacket, slim-jim tie, collar-bar & cuff-links to boot. Silver-gray hair processed into perfection with a look on his face that showed no sign of pretension, just unmistakable cool. Underneath it all a simple caption that gave the LP its title said it all: THE HONEYDRIPPER (as in "that cat's dressed so sweet, he's drippin' honey"). I was sold. Rushing back to my room, I eagerly put the platter on the turntable and "Whap!" - the leadoff cut hit me like a slap across the face. A line that managed to distill both the innovations of both Charlie Parker and Ray Charles in one succinct sentence. The quartet swung like mad and McDuff did more with four notes in his solo that I felt I had ever done with my life. It was perfect.
A couple of years later, I'm sitting at a table in the New Orleans Room of the posh Fairmont Hotel atop Nob Hill, San Francisco. Knowing damn well who we were about to see, we all had put on our Saturday night best and it felt good. Not five feet away from the table was a beautiful blonde Hammond B-3, flanked by two matching Leslie cabinets. Behind it; maritime cap perched on his head, red packet of Pall Mall's close at hand, making subtle adjustments to the draw-bars, was the man himself. He was so relaxed, so calm, so friendly as he looked over at the table of well-dressed, eager-eyed kids sipping at their rum drinks trying to mellow their nervous expectation. And then he hit it. The quartet of young New York-based musicians kicked into the first number. And yes, it swung like mad and, yes, it was perfect.
There are few shadows in music as long and undeniable as that of Jimmy Smith's. For 45 years he has completely dominated the Hammond organ in jazz music and beyond. And yet, Jack McDuff was not only one of the first to emerge in the wake of Smith, but was also one of the best. He played the organ his way and the way he played often was easily as incredible or amazing as Smith. His bass-lines were untouchable, his soloing deep and soulful and his comping clearly an inspiration to those he played with.
Born Eugene McDuffy in Champaign, Illinois on September 17, 1926, McDuff was largely a self-taught musician. He played some piano in his youth, mostly in the church of his father, a minister ("I'm Reverend McDuff's boy!" he proclaimed to the crowd on his 1963 LIVE! LP). After serving in the Navy through 1946, he worked with small combo R&B and jump blues acts until he formed his first jazz combo in 1953. Frustrated with the music scene and the piano he left the business in 1956 for about a year and a half, during which time he managed his father's dry cleaning store in his hometown. But soon he was back at it, switching to the bass out of circumstance and off for Chicago. Not eager to turn down work of any kind; he took a job as the substitute organist with Willis Jackson's group, immersed himself in Jimmy Smith's innovations, and did not look back for over 40 years.
By 1960, McDuff was leading his own group once again, something else in which he excelled. If he had one tangible edge over Jimmy Smith in the early 1960s (or any other organist, for that matter), it would have to be his superb working combos. The most famous of these (and arguably the best) consisted of the mighty tenor sax of Red Holloway, the soulful drums of Joe Dukes, and the raw, young genius of guitarist George Benson. For Prestige Records, this group recorded an amazingly consistent series of dates including the essential LIVE! and LIVE! AT THE JAZZ WORKSHOP LPs, both from 1963. And through changes in sidemen, record labels, and musical fashion, McDuff remained in top form. Sample a soul session with David Newman on Atlantic, a chunk of funk on Cadet, or a boogaloo for Blue Note. To properly use an oft-abused phrase out my way: it's ALL good! Somewhere along the line he got a "promotion" as well (as he put it), graduating from "Brother" to "Captain" Jack McDuff.
McDuff died on January 24, 2001 from a heart attack in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His health had been failing for some time, due to a succession of strokes. When I last saw him perform, he was using a cane to walk on & offstage. His technical facility showed signs of slowing at the keyboard, but put his soul into every single note he played and was clearly enjoying interacting with the enthusiastic audience. Thankfully, he was seldom an obscurity and much of his back catalog remains available in the digital age. So even with his passing he continues to give music something it will always needs: soul. To me, he is truly unforgettable and I pray he remains that way. Thank you, Captain.
[Published 7 February 2001]
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|Greg Boraman||maj 16 2001 4:06PM|
|Nick - Youve done Jack proud. having spent a good few years soaking up the vibes of nearly all the great organists as they have sat at my C3 - my one big regret is that McDuff never played & signed it (as did Jimmy Smith, my MATE Brian Auger, Rueben Wilson, Lonnie Smith, John Patton forget the 'big', he is small - Bobby Watley etc etc). Jack was a very cool cat - I tour managed the Sugarman 3 and Rudy thier drummer was also Jack's drummer for the last 13 years or so. The stories Rudy told me about McDuff were hilarious! He partied till the end that one! So - what is it about that generation of Jazz organists that epitomise original hipster cool. Always jazz but never up ya arse - groovers one and all. I suggest all mods tap into the real musical roots of this scene and stop going on about wether The La's should be considered a mod band...........! Yes?|
|Evan||feb 16 2001 8:11PM|
|Truly a sad sad loss. It was great to be at the Artist's Quarter in Saint Paul and see the Captain sit in with the Billy Holloman trio, but alas never again. No one can swing like McDuff, and probably never will.|
|joel||feb 16 2001 6:13PM|
|I can only envy you Fredrik man........that must surely have been a pretty enlightening experience to have one of the coooolest cats (and thats a fact) groovin' right there in the room. I'm just glad it was another modernist who got to hear that, someone who can appreciate the man's genius. Top work.|
|Fredrik Ekander||feb 16 2001 1:32PM|
|Sad indeed. But then again his career lasted much longer than many of his fellow artists from that same era. The first time I saw him was about ten years ago at Castle Hotel in Stockholm. We were about ten mods there, in double breasted suits et al, we stood way out in the crowd (which mainly consisted of 50 year old jazz nostalgics, so I guess it wasn't too hard). After the gig, he came over to us (!) to chat. "You're mods, right?! Cool suits." We talked about jazz, soul and Hammonds. And then he asked; "You guys wouldn't have any shit on you, now would you? I mean you're mods, and you're into speed and stuff, right?" Wow, we thought. This cool sixtysomething guy is together and still likes to party. Impressive. Jazz does seem to keep you young. Before coming to Sweden he'd been on a two weeks tour to Norway, where it had been pretty dried up "Man, I haven't had a joint or nothing for weeks!" We promised we were gonna try and sort him out for the next evening, when he was playing Fasching. Typically, we didn't score, so it was with not a little bit of reluctancy I went to his hotel the following day to break the bad news. "Oh, shit, what kind of country is this anyway?" To comfort him I had brought a bottle of Kir (we drank that stuff by the bucketload in those days). "No thanks, man, I don't drink wine no more, it's to sour and no good for my poor stomach". I told him this wasn't sour at all, it was Kir; great, very sweet French wine and strong too. He took a drink. (I closed my eyes) And he loved it! We downed that bottle in a wink, and as I headed out to pick up a few more, mr. McDuff (now in excellent mood) brought the rest of his band into his room. When I got back there, they were in full swing, jamming on Jack's portable keyboard, an accoustic guitar and an unplugged bass. Jack was "singing", well, making these grunting noises as he was playing, but oh sooo cool. Soulful to the bone. It was magic. The same night he put me and all my mod friends up on the guestlist. Man did we dance that night! /Sorry for this looong comment, but it's just such a fond memory. May he be Duffin Around in Hammond Heaven forever. God bless his soul.|
|Jules Olivier||feb 12 2001 12:31PM|
|An appropriate requiem for one of the groovy greats... Very nice read, altough the occasion is sad.|
|Julian Lawton||feb 9 2001 12:19AM|
|An obituary as good as he deserved, nice one Nick.|
|Ian Rowland||feb 8 2001 9:13PM|
|Fine Tribute to a fine Mucisian. I really wanted to go, but unfortunately couldn't make the gig Pete refers to.... I thought there would be a 'next time'......|
|Ozy Pete||feb 7 2001 7:58PM|
|Really enjoyed the article. It filled in some of the many gaps in my knowledge about the great man. I was lucky enough to see him recently at the 'Jazz Cafe'.He was really good, but didnt look the picture of health. I didn't realise how ill ,he must have been. At least I got to see him. A sad loss......|
|joel||feb 7 2001 3:46PM|
|without doubt an inspiration in both style and music........|
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