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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Electronic Keyboards in Jazz, A Recorded History, Part 1 of 2

My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.

I received a question from a listener who asked me about the earliest electronic keyboards used in jazz. I have written a paper called The Roots of Electronic Jazz, that explores the earliest synthesizers used in jazz, and I have a couple podcasts around that topic. But this question got me to thinking about the use of any electronic keyboards in jazz, not just synthesizers, but instruments such as the organ, the electric piano and numerous others. So, I’ve explored the Archive for examples of the early uses of those kinds of instruments and have come up with some interesting recordings to share with you. I will present this podcast in two parts and in chronological order based on the original recording dates.

It is commonly assumed that the use of electronic instruments in jazz came in the 1950s and 60s with the introduction of the electronic organ and electric piano. Jazz is a highly performative art, and the best players on any instrument are those who can bend its use to express themselves effectively. This is true of any jazz instrument, be it a horn, a wind or reed instrument, drums, guitar, bass, or the keyboard. The electronic organ and electric piano clearly found a home in jazz almost as quickly as they became available.

Before the 1950s, however, a few intrepid musicians experimented with early electronic keyboards, often offering a novel sound to jazz. Such instruments can only be heard in a relatively few recordings made when the idea of jazz went hand-in-hand with the idea of popular music and even dance or swing music. Seven such instruments went out of fashion in jazz as the electronic organ and piano gained popularity. These included the Hammond Novachord, which I call the first synthesizer, the Ondes Martenot, the Hammond Solovox, Lowrey Organo, Ondioline, Electronic Celesta, and Clavioline. But you will hear recordings from all of these instruments in this podcast. I’ve uncovered some fantastic, and surprising examples, going back all the way to 1938. Plus, several examples of Wurlitzer electric piano and Hammond organ tracks that set the stage for the introduction of the Fender Rhodes in the late 1960s, perhaps the most iconic electronic keyboard in all of jazz. The examples encompass many styles of jazz such as the blues, boogie woogie, cool jazz, novelty swing tunes, and early avant garde jazz from Sun Ra.

This episode being the first of two parts, the emphasis will be on “early” and I think. We will listen to jazz tracks up until the emergence of the Fender Rhodes in the late sixties.

Part 2 will feature the next generation of jazz keyboards, beginning in the mid-sixties with such instruments as the Fender Rhodes, RMI Rock-Si-Chord, and leading to early synthesizers.

Because seeing what these instruments looked like adds value to understanding how they were played, I created an illustrated chart of all of the instruments included in these episodes, paying special attention to the expressive features that could be easily adopted by jazz musicians.

Download the PDF here:

Electronic Keyboards Used in Jazz
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Episode 117

Electronic Keyboards in Jazz, A Recorded History, Part 1 of 2



Introduction 05:42

1.    Vernon Geyer, “Day After Day” from All Ashore / Day After Day (1938 Bluebird). Soloist, Hammond Electric Organ, Vernon Geyer.  02:22

2.    Milt Herth Quartet / Milt Herth Trio, “Minuet in Jazz” from Home-Cookin' Mama With The Fryin' Pan / Minuet In Jazz (1938 Decca). Milt Herth was one of the first to record with the Hammond Organ Model A. His playing was more focused on melody and counterpoint and not so much on creating a lush progression of chords. This was recorded a few years before the availability of the Leslie rotating speaker, which added a special tone quality to later Hammonds, such as the model B3.  02:44

3.    Milt Herth Quartet / Milt Herth Trio, “Looney Little Tooney” from Flat Foot Floojie / Looney Little Tooney (1938 Decca).  Vocals, O'Neil Spencer; Drums, O'Neil Spencer; Guitar, Teddy Bunn; Hammond Organ, Milt Herth; Piano, Willie Smith (The Lion). 02:50

4.    "Fats" Waller And His Rhythm, “Come Down to Earth, My Angel” from Come Down To Earth, My Angel / Liver Lip Jones (1941 Bluebird). Waller was an extremely popular ragtime and stride piano player and vocalist. In this number, he takes a rare turn on an electric organ, presumably an early model Hammond. Vocals, Piano, Electric Organ, "Fats" Waller; Bass, Cedric Wallace; Clarinet, Tenor Saxophone, Gene Sedric; Drums, Slick Jones; Guitar, Al Casey; Trumpet, John Hamilton.  03:10

5.    Collins H. Driggs, “When Day is Done” from The Magic Of The Novachord (1941 Victor). Soloist, Hammond Novachord, Collins H. Driggs. This was an early polyphonic keyboard that generated its sounds using valve, or vacuum tube, oscillators. Made by Hammond, the Novachord was an entirely different electronic instrument than its tone-wheel organs. The Novachord had unique, synthesizer-like controls over envelope generation, band pass filtering and vibrato controlled by a series of flip switches, offering the keyboardist a unique suite of sounds.  03:11

6.    The Four Clefs, “It's Heavenly” from It's Heavenly / Dig These Blues (1943 Bluebird). Hammond Electric Organ, James Marshall. Another organ recording and a nice duet with a guitarist Johnny "Happy" Green. 02:41

7.    Ethel Smith And The Bando Carioca, “Tico-Tico” from Tico-Tico / Lero Lero / Bem Te Vi Atrevido (1944 Decca). Another was a popular and skilled organist using a pre-B3 Hammond. 02:45

8.    Slim Gaillard Quartette, “Novachord Boogie” from Tee Say Malee / Novachord Boogie (1946 Atomic Records). Bass, Tiny Brown; Drums, Oscar Bradley; Guitar, Slim Gaillard; Piano, Dodo Marmarosa. While the Hammond Novachord plays a prominent role in this recording, the player is not credited. 02:57

9.    Milt Herth And His Trio,” Twelfth Street Rag” from Herthquake Boogie / Twelfth Street Rag (1948 Decca). Recorded in New York, NY, September 5, 1947. Described on the recording as a “Boogie Woogie Instrumental.” Hammond Organ, Milt Herth; Drums, Piano, Uncredited. Herth had been recording with the Hammond organ since 1937. 03:10

10.Ben Light With Herb Kern And Lloyd Sloop, “Benny's Boogie” from Benny's Boogie / Whispering (1949 Tempo). This track includes the triple keyboard combination of piano, organ, and Novachord. Hammond Electric Organ , Herb Kern; Piano, Ben Light; Hammond Novachord, Lloyd Sloop. 02:37

11.Johnny Meyer Met Het Kwartet Jan Corduwener, “There's Yes! Yes! in your Eyes” from Little White Lies / Thereʼs Yes! Yes! In Your Eyes (1949 Decca). Accordion player Johnny Meyer added a Hammond Solovox organ to his musical arrangements. The Solovox was monophonic and it added a solo voice to his performances. This recording is from the Netherlands. 03:22

12.E. Robert Scott, R.E. Wolke, “Instructions For Playing Lowrey Organo” (excerpt) from Instructions For Playing Lowrey Organo (circa 1950 No Label). Promotional disc produced by piano and organ distributor Janssen, presumably with the cooperation of Lowrey. This is a 12-inch 78 RPM disc, but is undated, so I believe that picking 1950 as the release year is safe because the Organo was introduced in 1949 and 78 RPM records were already beginning to be replaced in 1950 by the 33-1/3 RPM disc. Recordings of this instrument are extremely rare. I have no such examples within a jazz context, but being a competitor of the Hammond Solovox, I thought this was worth including. 03:23

13.Ethel Smith, “Toca Tu Samba” from Souvenir Album (1950 Decca). One of the great female masters of the Hammond Electric Organ was Ethel Smith. Her performances were mostly considered as pop music, but she had the knack for creating Latin jazz tracks such as this. Featuring The Bando Carioca; Hammond Electric Organ soloist, Ethel Smith. 02:25

14.The Harmonicats, “The Little Red Monkey” from The Little Red Monkey / Pachuko Hop (1953 Mercury). Jerry Murad's Harmonicats were an American harmonica-based group. On this number, they included the electronic instrument known as the Clavioline. The Clavioline produced a fuzzy square wave that could be filtered to roughly imitate many other instruments. The record is inscribed with the message, “Introducing the Clavioline,” but the player is not mentioned. 01:56

15.Djalma Ferreira E Seus Milionarios Do Ritmo, “Solovox Blues” from Parada De Dança N. 2 (1953 Musidisc). From Brazil comes a jazz group that included the Hammond Solovox Organ as part of its ensemble. Invented in 1940, the Solovox was a monophonic keyboard intended as an add-on to a piano for playing organ-flavored solos. It had a 3-octave mini keyboard and controls over vibrato and attack time, and tone settings for deep, full, and brilliant. Piano, Hammond Solovox Organ, Djalma Ferreira; Bass, Egidio Bocanera; Bongos, Amaury Rodrigues; Drums, Cecy Machado; Guitar, Nestor Campos.  02:31

16.Eddie Baxter, “Jalousie” from Temptation (1957 Rendezvous Records). Piano, Hammond Organ, Celesta (Electronic Celeste), Krueger Percussion Bass, Eddie Baxter; rhythm section, uncredited. Like Ethel Smith, Baxter was pushing the limits of popular music with his virtuosity on the organ and other instruments. In this track you can hear the electronic celesta with its chime-like sounds near the beginning before the electric organ and guitar dominate the rest of the piece. 02:33

17.Eddie Baxter, “Temptation” from Temptation (1957 Rendezvous Records). Hammond Electric Organ, Eddie Baxter. Piano, Hammond Organ, Wurlitzer Electric Piano, Krueger Percussion Bass, Eddie Baxter. In this track, you can clearly hear the Wurlitzer electric piano in several sections. 02:08

18.Le Sun Ra And His Arkestra, “Advice to Medics” from Super-Sonic Jazz (1957 El Saturn Records). This excursion into one of the first records released by Sun Ra as a bandleader of the Arkestra was recorded in 1956 at RCA Studios, Chicago. This track is a solo for the Wurlitzer Electric Piano, an instrument invented in 1954 and that was quickly adopted by many jazz and popular music players.  02:02

19.Le Sun Ra And His Arkestra, “India” from Super-Sonic Jazz (1957 El Saturn Records). A work featuring the Wurlitzer Electric Piano played by Sun Ra, miscellaneous percussion; electric bass, Wilburn Green; Drums, Robert Barry and William Cochran; Timpani, Timbales, Jim Herndon; and trumpet, Art Hoyle. 04:48

20.Le Sun Ra And His Arkestra, “Springtime in Chicago” from Super-Sonic Jazz (1957 El Saturn Records). This work features Sun Ra playing the acoustic and electric pianos. Wurlitzer Electric Piano, piano Sun Ra; bass, Victor Sproles; Tenor Saxophone, John Gilmore; Drums, Robert Barry and William Cochran.  03:50

21.Le Sun Ra And His Arkestra, “Sunology” from Super-Sonic Jazz (1957 El Saturn Records). Another number with both the acoustic and electric pianos. Of interest is how Sun Ra moves deftly from one keyboard to the other (these recordings were made in real time), often mid-phrase. This was a style of playing that Sun Ra would continue to perfect throughout his long career and many electronic keyboards. Wurlitzer Electric Piano, piano Sun Ra; bass, Victor Sproles; Tenor Saxophone, John Gilmore; Drums, Robert Barry and William Cochran; Alto Saxophone, James Scales; Alto Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone, Pat Patrick. 12:47

22.Steve Allen, “Electronic Boogie” from Electrified Favorites (1958 Coral). From Steve Allen, who played the Wurlitzer Electric Piano on this track. This track has the characteristic brashness that was typical of the Wurlitzer sound. 02:23

23.Steve Allen, “Steverino Swings” from Electrified Favorites (1958 Coral). From Wurlitzer Electric Piano, Steve Allen. Unlike many tracks featuring the Wurlitzer Electric, which make use of its distortion and emphasize its sharp attack, it was possible to closely mimic an acoustic piano as well, as Allen does here. I had to listen to this several times before I believed that it was the Wurlitzer, as the liner notes state. But you can hear certain tell-tale sounds all along the way—such as the slight electrified reverb after a phrase concludes and the occasional thump of the bass notes played by the left hand.  02:54

24.Michel Magne, “Larmes En Sol Pleureur (Extrait D'un Chagrin Emmitouflé)” from Musique Tachiste (1959 Paris). Jazz expression in a third-stream jazz setting by French composer Michel Magne. Third-stream was a music genre that fused jazz and classical music. The term was coined in 1957 by composer Gunther Schuller after which there was a surge of activity around this idea. In this example, the Ondes Martenot and vocalist add jazz nuances to a chamber music setting, the interpretation being very jazz-like. Ondes Martenot, Janine De Waleine; Piano, Paul Castagnier; Violin, Lionel Gali; Voice, Christiane Legrand. 02:38

25.Ray Charles, “What'd I Say” from What'd I Say (1959 Atlantic). This might be the most famous track ever recorded using a Wurlitzer Electric Piano. The fuzzy, sharp tone added depth and feeling to the playing. The opening bars were imitated far and wide for radio advertising of drag races during the 1960s. 05:05

26.Lew Davies And His Orchestra, “Spellbound” from Strange Interlude (1961 Command). This was one of Enoch Light’s productions from the early 1960s, when stereo separation was still an experiment. This is the theme from the Hitchcock movie with a melody played on the Ondioline, a monophonic organ and an otherwise jazzy arrangement with a rhythm section, reeds, and horns. Arrangement, Lew Davies; Ondioline, Sy Mann; Bass, Bob Haggart, Jack Lesberg; Cymbalum, Michael Szittai; Drums, George Devens, Phil Kraus; French Horn,Paul Faulise, Tony Miranda; Guitar, Tony Mottola; Reeds, Al Klink, Ezelle Watson, Phil Bodner, Stanley Webb; Trombone, Bobby Byrne, Dick Hixon, Urbie Green; Produced by, Enoch Light. 03:29

27.Sy Mann and Nick Tagg, “Sweet and Lovely” from 2 Organs & Percussion (1961 Grand Award). Duets on the Hammond B3 and Lowrey Organs “propelled by the urgent percussive drive of a brilliant rhythm section.” This is a unique opportunity to contract and compare the sounds of the Hammond and Lowrey organs with percussion. Hammond B3 Organ, Sy Mann, Nick Tagg. The track begins with the Lowrey and demonstrates the sliding tone effects made possible by its Glide foot switch. 02:58

28.Enoch Light And The Light Brigade, “Green Eyes” from Vibrations (1962 Command). More stereo separation hijinks from Enoch Light. This tune features the Ondioline in an exchange of lines with the guitar and other instruments. The Ondioline is first heard at about 35 seconds. Ondioline, Milton Kraus; Bass, Bob Haggart; Guitar, Tony Mottola; Percussion, Bobby Rosengarden, Dan Lamond, Ed Shaughnessy, Phil Kraus; Piano, Moe Wechsler; Trumpet – Doc Severinsen; Woodwind – Phil Bodner, Stanley Webb; Produced by, Enoch Light. 02:50

29.Jimmy Smith, “Begger for the Blues” from The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith--Bashin' (1962 Verve). Jimmy Smith was a great jazz soloist on the Hammond B3 organ. This stripped-down arrangement shows his nuanced expression skills with the organ.  07:26

30.Jimmy Smith, “Walk On The Wild Side” from The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith--Bashin' (1962 Verve). This big band arrangement of a theme from the movie Walk on the Wild Side features the Hammond B3 of Smith in the context of a full jazz orchestration. 05:54

31.Dick Hyman And His Orchestra, “Stompin' At The Savoy” from Electrodynamics (1963 Command). Arranged, Lowrey Organ, Dick Hyman; Bass, Bob Haggart; Drums, Osie Johnson; Guitar, Al Casamenti, Tony Mottola; Marimba, Xylophone, Vibraphone, Bongos, Congas, Bass Drum, Bells, Cowbell, Bob Rosengarden, Phil Kraus; Produced by Enoch Light. Hyman shows off the steady, smooth tonalities of the Lowrey and also makes use of the Glide foot switch right from the beginning with that little whistling glissando that he repeats five times in the first 30 seconds.  02:50

32.Sun Ra, “The Cosmos” from The Heliocentric Worlds Of Sun Ra, Vol. I (1965 ESP Disc). The instrumentation on this entire album is quite experimental, especially the dominance of the bass marimba, Electronic Celesta, and timpani of Sun Ra. The celesta is seldom heard on jazz records, but it is the only electronic keyboard found on this track. Marimba, Electronic Celesta, timpani, Sun Ra; Percussion, Jimhmi (sp Jimmy) Johnson; Performer, Sun Ra And His Solar Arkestra; Baritone Saxophone, Percussion, Pat Patrick; Bass, Ronnie Boykins; Bass Clarinet, Wood Block, Robert Cummings; Bass Trombone, Bernard Pettaway; Flute, Alto Saxophone, Danny Davis; Percussion, timpani, Jimmi Johnson; Piccolo Flute, Alto Saxophone, Bells, Spiral Cymbal, Marshall Allen. 07:31

33.Sun Ra And His Solar Arkestra, “The Magic City” from The Magic City (1966 Saturn Research). You won’t be disappointed to know that Sun Ra gave the Clavioline a turn on this album. This was prior to his experimenting with synthesizers, which we will cover in Part 2 of this exploration of early electronic keyboards in jazz. He incorporated the Clavioline in many of his mid-1960s recordings. Clavioline, Piano, Sun Ra; Alto Saxophone, Danny Davis, Harry Spencer; Percussion, Roger Blank; Trombone, Ali Hassan; Trumpet, Walter Miller. 27:24

34.Clyde Borly & His Percussions, “Taboo” from Music In 5 Dimensions (1965 Atco). Vocals, Ondes Martenot, Janine De Waleyne. Yes, Ms. De Waleyne was a French vocalist and Ondes Martenot player.  03:33

35.Jeanne Loriod, Stève Laurent and Pierre Duclos, ''Ordinateur X Y Z” from Ondes Martenot (1966 SONOROP). Album of broadcast library music from France that happened to feature the Ondes Martenot played Jeanne Loriod; drums, uncredited. The dynamic expression features of the monophonic electronic instrument can be clearly experienced on this track. 02:05

36.Roger Roger, “Running with the Wind” from Chappell Mood Music Vol. 21 (1969 Chappell). Broadcast library recording with various themes played using the Ondes Martenot. This track features a solo Ondes Martenot and is backed by an electric harpsichord. The Ondes Martenot used the same electronic principle to create smooth, flowing tones as the Theremin, only that it was controlled by a keyboard. In this piece, the articulation of the Ondes Martenot is quite apart from that of the Theremin, including its double-tracked tones and the quick pacing which is rather un-Theremin-like.  01:28

37.Roger Roger, “Night Ride” from Chappell Mood Music Vol. 21 (1969 Chappell). Broadcast library recording with various themes played using the Ondes Martenot. While this track features a flute solo, you can hear the Ondes Martenot from time to time, especially in the middle break. Other uncredited musician play drums, harp, and perhaps a celesta on this track. 01:35

Opening background music: Dick Hyman And His Orchestra, “Mack the Knife,” “Satin Doll” and “Shadowland” from Electrodynamics (1963 Command). Dick Hyman playing the Lowrey organ. Arranged, Lowrey Organ, Dick Hyman; Bass, Bob Haggart; Drums, Osie Johnson; Guitar, Al Casamenti, Tony Mottola; Marimba, Xylophone, Vibraphone, Bongos, Congas, Bass Drum, Bells, Cowbell, Bob Rosengarden, Phil Kraus; Produced by Enoch Light.

Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.

Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.

See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation.


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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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