What is Soul Jazz?

What is soul jazz? For individuals getting into jazz, this is a good question.  Jazz (or Black American Music depending on who you ask) has a myriad of genre designations that can be quite confusing, or in the modern era, useless.  Soul jazz is an odd designation that came in a relatively brief period of little over a decade plus that included a fusillade of innovation: bebop, cool jazz and hard bop.  Soul jazz became most popular at the onset of the early 60’s when Jimmy Smith pared down his style to a funky essence, moving from the bop and hard bop of his 1956-58 albums on Blue Note, beginning with Home Cookin’ released in 1959.  Other significant organists followed over the next decade such Jimmy McGriff, the great Brother Jack McDuff, Johnny Hammond Smith, John Patton, Shirley Scott, Rhoda Scott (no relation) Charles Earland, Don Patterson and Richard “Groove” Holmes among many others; all of whom had unique approaches on offer. Classic Horace Silver compositions like “The Preacher” and Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin'” were popular soul jazz vehicles as well, but the genre has a history that has it’s roots in the church, and further, with pre Jimmy Smith organists.  Cannonball Adderley, by the early to mid 60’s was one of the biggest soul jazz draws.  The alto saxophonist once remarked that the genre term was marketing, that Riverside felt the music was jazz but also soul.  Soul jazz also introduced the public to some of the all time great guitarists, Grant Green, a 21 year old phenom by the name of George Benson, and another prodigious talent: Pat Martino.

St. Louis’ Milt Buckner, ebullient, ferocious, short statured, after Fats Waller and Count Basie had dabbled in jazz organ, was an early Hammond organ proponent.  Initially a pianist, Buckner’s pianistic innovation was the use of block chords that influenced legions of pianists from Red Garland, to Bill Evans. Buckner’s career took off  with the McKinney Cotton pickers, followed  by an 1941 stint in the band of Cab Calloway, but he was most known for his Lionel Hampton association. When Buckner transferred to the Hammond organ, like his contemporaries Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis, he primarily utilized the instrument showcasing the huge sound obtained with every drawbar out to act as a big band  In later years, Buckner adopted a modern post Jimmy Smith approach utilizing leaner registrations  and less heavy vibrato.  In 1956 when  Smith arrived on the jazz scene, his very first recording A New Sound, A New Star heavily drew on the Bill Davis influence as far organ sound, but the ideas integrating, the blues, Charlie Parker, Horace Silver and Bud Powell, were unheard of for the time.


The key with much of soul jazz was that it was dance able. In most cases, the song forms were relatively simple, A-A-B-A song forms, and standard 12 bar blues forms. Horace Silver’s  “The Preacher” was a bit different: a 16 bar form with heavy doses of gospel and R&B.  Many tunes played by Jack McDuff and Charles Earland,  were a bit more complex with post solo interludes and shout choruses as big bands would do.  In the case of Jimmy McGriff’s many singles initially recorded for the Sue label beginning in 1962 with his smash version of Ray Charles “I Got A Woman”, and later tracks like “Cashbox” they relied heavily on the blues, the emotional fervor of gospel, and gospel rhythms.  Much like how bebop and hard bop were dance musics in the black community, artists filled organ rooms in inner city clubs and the music was made for these audiences.   Particularly in the mid 60’s, Prestige became a soul jazz factory producing records like Black Feeling (1969) by Johnny Hammond and Black Talk from Charles Earland, which were thematically named to tie into the civil rights and rising Afrocentric climates.  Much of this music was reviewed relatively lukewarm within mainstream jazz media in the midst of the innovations from Miles Davis, and the jazz-funk and jazz-rock music coming from Tony Williams Lifetime, Weather Report, but soul jazz was pure people music at the core.  Musically there were some very subtle things of interest– for example the bass lines of John Patton differed from other organist’s bass lines by being highly syncopated and on the upbeat with tracks such as “Latona” and “Ding Dong” providing wonderful examples.  Jack McDuff’s tight arrangements made him something akin to an Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers of organ.  Eventually though as jazz paradigms began to shift into more abstract territory, many turned to R&B, funk or smooth jazz.  Miles Davis, as the Second Great Quintet was nearing it’s close, one of his initial experiments with electric instruments, “Stuff” from Miles In The Sky (1968) was a soul jazz homage of sorts with a boogaloo rhythm.

The mainstream jazz media is/was somewhat indifferent to soul jazz, because as stated earlier, amidst the innovations of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and others the music was designed for the black community.  If one were to look at All Music Guide reviews written by critics such as Scott Yanow, Michael G. Nastos they, frequently dismiss the music as being predictable or having “throwaway” tunes, but such statements are cursory and ignored the layers of the music.     On one level, from 1965 on, Prestige organ based albums are predictable in that you know the kind of repertoire will be played, but within that, several albums by Don Patterson, Johnny “Hammond” Smith and Richard “Groove” Holmes were truly special, as were the Blue Note albums of Lonnie Smith– all of these musicians have  unique voices, instantly identifiable voices.  Jimmy Smith’s Verve recordings made him a superstar, while his Blue Note albums have his most adventurous playing– there are moments of such during the Verve era and his genius was always on display.  Hammond organ scholars such as Pete Fallico and Youtube jazz personality The Jazz Shepherd are ardent soul jazz supporters and seek to correctly posit the music’s social and historical status– this was people music,  the grooves, and solo intensity are some of jazz’s greatest pleasures.  The New York Jazz Workshop offers several workshops that can edify the historical concepts discussed in this article.