• Newark, NJ: An "Organ Town" for Over 50 Years

    April 7, 2011. Posted by Alex Rodriguez.

    Dr. Lonnie Smith plays in the studio tomorrow at 3 p.m.
    Dr. Lonnie Smith plays in the studio on Saturday at 3 p.m.

    Recently, WBGO has had the good fortune of acquiring an excellent Hammond C-3 organ (pictured below) that now sits in our studio. On Saturday, the acclaimed organist Dr. Lonnie Smith will make an appearance with his organ trio (featuring drummer Jamire Williams and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg) to give it a whirl -- and as it turns out, this performance will be part of a long history of the jazz organ entertaining Newark audiences.

    Dr. Lonnie Smith appears as part of our celebration of Member Appreciation Weekend. WBGO is turning 32 years old, and with you as a member we are confident that this music and this radio station will be on the air for many years to come. Tomorrow's special performance, at 3 p.m., is just one of the many ways that we express our gratitude to the nearly 17,000 of you who have kept this station on the air. Click here to learn more about the special benefits available to members this weekend.

    Of course, WBGO isn't the only jazz institution that has enjoyed a long history in Newark. Long before the station became "The Jazz Source," Newark was a popular stop on the "Chitlin' Circuit," the network of clubs and performance venues in which African-American musicians played to primarily African-American audiences. The "soul jazz" sound pioneered in the 1950s by organ virtuosos like Jimmy Smith and Brother Jack McDuff was the soundtrack to much of this scene during that time. Local venues included the Key Club, Sparky's, Autumn's, Better Place to Live, and Club Elegant (where another organ legend, Jimmy McGriff, is said to have kept his personal organ.)

    According to Bloomfield-based organist and jazz historian Radam Schwartz, the organ scene first took root in nearby Atlantic City, where Club Harlem featured Wild Bill Davis alongside drummer Chris Colombo. As the popularity of the organ sound spread, a number of so-called "organ rooms" sprung up in clubs all across the state, and Brick City was no exception. As McGriff put it, "Newark had a jazz club on every other corner, and that [organ jazz] was really the thing out there." (via the Encyclopedia of New Jersey)

    Although the organ sound is no longer as popular as it was during its heyday in the 1960s, Schwartz, Smith, and many others are keeping the flame burning today. Some of them have been featured recently on The Checkout, including last week's Brian Charette session, last month's hit with Mike DiRubbo, and last year's John Ellis performance (using a rented Hammond B-3.) As you can hear from these excellent recordings, the organ is still an important part of today's jazz scene. And thanks to the generosity of our members, WBGO is able to keep bringing it to you, all year long.

    Thanks again for your support, and tune in on Saturday at 3 p.m. to hear our new organ in action at the hands of the talented Dr. Lonnie Smith!

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