"Big" John Patton


big john patton and joey defrancesco at newark organ jam 1996

With the advent of numerous reissues claiming to be the 'Roots of Acid jazz', it might be nice to be updated on those artists (once described as 'Soul jazz' players) who have been so cleverly left out of the marketing mix. Big John Patton has been a prime example of this. Although he may be receiving some residuals from the record companies for his reissues and new entries, I'm not so sure that he's been inundated with new bookings, tours and recording opportunities. He is, after all, one of the most soulful of the organists and can authentically link today's 'Acid jazz' with the golden era of the Hammond B-3. He has fueled such luminaries as Red Holloway, Lou Donaldson, Fred Jackson, Grant Green, Jimmy Ponder and, more recently, John Zorn since his entrance in 1959.

One of the first things to know about Big John is that he's not really 'Big', per se. He may have been heavier earlier in his career but as he explained it to me one time, it was the title of a pop song that inspired the tag - 'Remember the tune, 'Big Bad John'? ... yeah, well, that's what they started calling me and at first I didn't understand it but I love it now. It's just a name; if it's going to help you, then boogie on up in there!'

John was born in Kansas City on July 12, 1935. His mother introduced him to the piano and stressed a fundamental approach to playing which he eventually turned into a self-teaching style. He was inspired by the music he heard in his home town but was eager to move east and find professional work after high school. One night in Washington D.C., he ran into Lloyd Price who was appearing at the Howard Theater and just happened to have been looking for a new piano player. John's audition for Lloyd consisted of playing the introduction to 'Lawdy, Miss Clawdy' before he was given the job. This R&B combo soon expanded as did John's responsibilities and awareness. "I learned everything with Lloyd. I was his 'strawboss' and the leader and he dumped all this on me and that was an experience that I got a chance to deal with". John soon found himself in the middle of issues that challenged his integrity. 'I was dealing with musicians that thought I was 'tommin' or doing whatever Lloyd told me to do...Well, you're damn right I did, 'cause he was paying the money and I wanted the experience and we came together with a lot of it"

John's self-teaching method kept him close to the real musicians; those who he admired and emulated. ml went to the 'University of the Street' and majored in everything I could get to... musically collaborating with the MASTERS!" One of John's most revered friends was Ike Quebec who was an early Blue Note recording star and very helpful in John's recording career. "That's my mentor...he was beautiful. He hipped me to Grant". Surely, Grant Green was one of John's most important musical friends. "Grant is my love...I never heard nobody play the guitar like that brother...Grant started playing when he was about twelve and he was out there a long time. I got a chance to meet his father and his mother in St. Louis. His mother kinda reminded me of my mother...They loved Grant to death...and I was so thrilled that I got a chance to play with him, man, but he was greedy, (like a) Gemini, (but) I was a mule...I didn't care; I sho' learned!"

With a master teacher like Sweet Papa Lou Donaldson, John took some of his most serious coursework. "Hey, I played three and a half years with Lou, what can I say, he says 'Play the BLUES'...You don't mess with Lou 'cause Lou knows how to play the Be Bop and Blues and Rhythm and Blues ... I am very fortunate that I got a chance to spend that much time with him and I can't thank him enough".

Learning outside the conventional classroom seems to have given John the depth and authenticity that only the true musical masters knew how to impart. "They won't pass it to you if they don't think that (you're serious)...if they see that you're bullshitting, they ain't gonna pass no more. So you've got to have humility you've got to have whatever it takes for you to get that universal 'jammie' when you get on the bandstand." John's rhetorical question seems to better explain this- Tow can musicians get on the bandstand and don't have nothing to read?...and come together like you know what!"

John's musical concept evolved as he brought friends with him into this experience - Drummer, Ben Dixon was a good example of this. "Yeah, me and Ben ... I was the one that got Ben the job with Lloyd. I knew he was very creative and was self-taught." Ben would play Jimmy Smith records for John and encourage him to play the Hammond organ by sighting John's bass line as his strongest qualification. "Some of the clubs that we would play in would have an organ off to the side and every time I would have a chance to get with that organ, man, it was just fascinating to me...especially the bass line". After some inquiry, John recalled a fella named 'Butts' who apparently first showed him how to set up the organ and find the right registrations - Another friend, Herman Green, who played with Lionel Hampton's band stayed close to John in those organ woodshedding days. "We went down to Asbury Park and that's where I got a chance to really deal with the organ...I'm glad I went there to do it rather than practice on the gig, you know".

Nineteen Fifty Nine was the year John Patton decided to leave Lloyd Price's band and move to New York to enroll in the aforementioned University of the Street - His piano playing days were becoming a part of his past as his passion for the Hammond organ grew. "Man, listen, it's so sensitive and it will reveal its secrets if you try to get up in there and learn it...and learn the sound and contact. You can't play it like a piano 'cause that's another thing all together - The notes are the same but, see, that electricity puts another 'jammie' on you, you know what I mean? You must deal with touch and so many other thing...and I was very frustrated as first".

A career with Blue Note Records served to solidify John Patton's place in American music - He put out some of the most important jazz organ recordings in their catalogue and his style on the Hammond B-3 has been resistant to imitation because of its space and economy. In a recent club date at New York's Knitting Factory, a writer claimed that Big John played 'minimalist organ'... or 'a few notes separated by wide spaces of silence..." A better interpretation might be that John's understating qualities emulated the sounds of favored trumpet and reed players. "I love trumpet, I love trombone, I love reeds...I love it all...Musicians like Fred Jackson, Richard Williams, Grant Green, Ben Dixon and Johnny Griffin...I can go on and on ...This is where I got my concept ... and that I had enough to do my homework and I sho' did do that!"

Today, Big John Patton struggles to re-emerge onto a scene that takes advantage of his past musical contributions but is slow to embrace him on a commercial level. He's been to England numerous times supported by his wife, Thelma, and has been met with young, enthusiastic fanfare. There, the renaissance of the Hammond organ groove has been in full swing for several years which only serves to further embarrass those of us who know and still appreciate the masters who laid down the foundation for today's hip hop but receive only an occasional nod from the record companies. "I will never forget where I came from", says Big John Patton, "I might get off the beaten path a little bit but I'm sure gonna try to get back on, you dig?" We dig, John...You just get back on the bench where you belong and we'll hope to hear from you soon!

Article courtesy of Pete Fallico