Back in the '60s, there wasn't as big a divide between jazz and R&B as there is today. Sure, currently there is that soft netherworld of quiet storm, a place where smooth jazz and slick R&B intertwine, but back then jazzmen could make people dance, cutting hot singles that rocked the jukebox and climbed the charts, usually Billboard's R&B-dominated "Black Singles" chart, but often crossing over too. Of these musicians, few were as successful as organist Jimmy McGriff, who died May 24 at the age of 72. McGriff played to a larger audience because he was all about rhythm and soul, churning out thick, funky, infectious grooves on his Hammond.
This facility with the groove led McGriff to label himself as a bluesman, and there was a fair amount of truth to that. He was rooted in the blues, and compared to such contemporaries as Jimmy Smith -- never mind Larry Young, who was in a different sphere entirely -- he never quite delved into long, liquid solos, nor did he have consciously-crafted pop crossovers like Peter & The Wolf, either. McGriff, like his peer Richard "Groove" Holmes -- who he cut an album called Giants of the Organ Come Together with in 1973 -- was all about feel, a feel that was tangible in the earthy, funky grooves that dominated his playing, a feel that was palpable even when he did a session devoted to Count Basie's swing.
He retained that funky feel even when his records reflected the styles of the time, as they did in the '70s when Electric Funk, Groove Grease and Soul Sugar had fuzz guitars and deep funky grooves that later were mined for samples (they also were graced by some seriously sexy album covers). Such an emphasis on samples is accurate, as McGriff was always about rhythm, but usually McGriff's music was old-fashioned funk, more about the gritty groove instead of James Brown vamps. This is best heard on those 45s that climbed the charts and earned heavy rotation on '60s jukeboxes, ranging from 1962's "I've Got a Woman" to 1969's "The Worm," sides that defined the sound of soul-jazz in the '60s and beyond.
Of course, Jimmy McGriff went far beyond the '60s, or those turn of the '70s cult classics. He continued to play and record well into the new millennium, putting out LPs on Groove Merchant in the '70s, CDs on Milestone and Telarc in the '80s and '90s. He wound up with a lot of records, most of them easy to enjoy, as almost all of them wound up being true to that blues-saturated soulful sound he created in the '60s. It's a sound that still feels soulful and right, whether it's on the original records or samples or in the legions of younger musicians following McGriff's footprints.