I mentioned last week that when Ken Burns made the documentary Jazz, he neglected the soul-jazz stars who kept the music relevant in the 1960s, in favor of a continued focus on the declining careers of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and on the fusion experiments of Miles Davis. There’s an argument that soul jazz is closer to the pre-war jazz and swing Burns celebrates than much of the jazz that’s come along since World War II. Despite its descent from bebop, soul jazz actually maintains continuity with swing—its reliance on grooves you can dance to—that bebop itself intended to break. And many of the top soul-jazz players did something in the 1960s that Ellington and Davis did not, and that Armstrong did only with pop songs—scored hits on the pop charts.
The deepest grooves in soul jazz were frequently plowed by organists, either fronting small groups or recording with orchestras. Jimmy Smith did both. He hit the Hot 100 12 times and the Bubbling Under chart four times between 1962 and 1968. His hits were frequently songs that had been featured in movies, albeit obscure ones (Walk on the Wild Side, Any Number Can Win, Joy House). His biggest hit, the heavily orchestrated “Walk on the Wild Side,” reached #21 in 1962. Smith also charted 22 albums between 1962 and 1970. Several went top 20: Bashin’, Hobo Flats, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Cat, and Organ Grinder Swing, all by the fall of 1965.
Also in 1962, Jimmy McGriff reached #20 with his version of the Ray Charles hit “I Got a Woman.” He would hit the Hot 100 and Bubbling Under charts eight more times by 1968. (In 1967, a time when the Bubbling Under chart included up to 35 songs, he charted with a gospel-inflected version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”) Richard “Groove” Holmes and Brother Jack McDuff also scattered some singles during the 1960s. Holmes charted three times in 1966 alone; his version of “Misty” missed the Top 40 in the summer. McDuff’s lone Hot 100 hit didn’t come until 1969, “Theme From Electric Surfboard,” although he had bubbled under in both 1963 and 1964. McGriff and McDuff each charted four albums in the 60s, Holmes three. And on the subject of organists, you could put Booker T. Jones of Booker T. and the MGs in the soul-jazz box, too.
We heard another prominent soul-jazz star in our Down in the Bottom series on one-hit wonders who peaked between #90 and #100 on the Hot 100. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s “Alligator Boogaloo” (which features Dr. Lonnie Smith on organ and a young George Benson on guitar) charted in 1967. There are certainly other non-charting records and stars I’m ignoring here, but if you visit Funky16Corners regularly, you’ll get a better education than I can provide.
Soul jazz was often a decent fit alongside the R&B and pop records you’d hear on the radio in the 1960s, although longer tracks were almost always edited for time, and sometimes to isolate the groovin’-est parts. Soul jazz 45s were popular jukebox fare, particularly in African-American neighborhoods of cities. And today, soul aficionados still dig ‘em. But as the 1970s unfolded, the popularity of soul jazz waned with a mass audience. Its top practitioners still recorded and gigged live, but you wouldn’t hear them much on the radio.
(The jazz you did hear on the radio from the 1970s forward will be the subject of a future post.)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are several thousand soul-jazz tracks in my music library (seriously, I got me a big honkin’ load of it), and I feel like going off to listen to some more of them.