When veteran alto saxophonist Hank Crawford and Hammond B-3 wizard Jimmy McGriff formed a quartet in 1986, their record company, Milestone, documented the union with the release of Soul Survivors, a high-energy platter filled with R&B, blues and lots of the sort of soulful jazz with which they've long been associated. A decade later, the title is frequently used to describe the two players. But these soul survivors don't make a big thing of their ten-year association. Rather, they chalk up the chemistry that's so much in evidence whenever they join forces to simple compatibility.
"Oh, Hank is one of the giants--believe me," McGriff says in a warm, raspy voice. "I've been knowing him for a long time, and he's one that lots of younger guys are influenced by. I love playing with him because we think alike musically. That's got a lot to do with playing. If you can enjoy who you're playing with and understand what they're doing, that's 75 percent of it."
Speaking in a smooth, deep tone that exudes nonchalance and confidence, Crawford echoes this point. "McGriff and I have the same feeling about the music. We're from the same era, same school of music--and it basically comes down to a feeling. There's nothing technical about it. It's an easy thing for us to play together, because we don't have to teach each other about how to play what you would call soul jazz. We have no problems. But it's got to be up to each person. With me, I know what I play best and what I do--and that's the way it is with McGriff or any of the other artists who refused to change styles. We don't even try to go with the new trends. What you hear of me is me. I don't try to change. I mean, you lose your identity when you try to change with every new thing that comes along. If you hear Count Basie, you don't want to hear Count Basie sounding like Chick Corea--you know what I'm saying? You do what you do, and you don't change it. People know my sound. They know immediately when I start playing. They don't have to wonder who this guy is.
"If you have been able to establish yourself, people are going to accept you for what you are and what you play," he continues. "You don't have to change. Duke Ellington, Dizzy--they didn't change. Look, there were millions of trumpet players coming up behind Dizzy. But Dizzy stayed Dizzy. Miles stayed Miles. Bird stayed Bird. You don't go out and change your thing once you are identified with it."
Crawford earned his musical stripes in the late Fifties and early Sixties, and since then, numerous instrumentalists, including David Sanborn, have developed styles close to his. As for McGriff, he took up the B-3 after Jimmy Smith popularized it. He was not alone: Groove Holmes, Charles Earland and Shirley Scott also became known as premier B-3 practitioners. But McGriff is considered the finest blues soloist of the lot, as well as an innovator in the soul-jazz genre.
Born in Philadelphia sixty years ago, McGriff started his musical journey on bass and saxophone. By the time he was in high school, he'd also added the vibes to his repertoire. "I started to play drums, too," he notes. "But I gave it up. Groove Holmes talked me into playing the organ, and I'm glad that I listened to him. I used to know Count Basie very well, and he would listen to some of the things I did and say, 'Man, you stay on that keyboard.' So I did. But I like the alto sax, too. I played sax on a few shows with Sonny Stitt, because he knew I could do it and he already had his organ player there."
Although McGriff later took classes at both Juilliard and Philadelphia's Combe College of Music, he didn't become a full-time musician for many years. He served as a military policeman during the Korean conflict--"and when I came out of the service, I had a good rating," he recalls. "So I went to see what I could do about getting a job. Well, I checked out the regular police force, but it wasn't for me; I thought I really needed to find something better. So in the days I went to the Penn Institute of Criminology and studied there. And at night I played bass in Big Maybelle's band."
McGriff subsequently passed an examination that qualified him to become a member of the state police force. But just as he was about to commit himself to a life in law enforcement, his jazz career took off. His 1962 debut for Sue Records, I Got a Woman, became a Top 20 hit, opening up other musical opportunities. He was especially thrilled to work alongside Frank Foster in Buddy Rich's band. "I learned a lot about doing a big band," he remarks. "Thanks to Buddy and Frank, I came a long way."
Two year older than McGriff, Crawford hails from Memphis, Tennessee. He began piano lessons at age nine and says he enjoyed it so much that his first saxophone initially made little impression on him. "The sax was a gift to me from my father, a frustrated saxophone player himself," he relates. "He was in the service, stationed in India, and when he came home, he brought an old Army saxophone that they were going to get rid of. I was still in elementary school, and I was really into the piano. So the saxophone just stayed in my closet until I reached ninth grade. They had a marching band then, and if I wanted to be in the band, I had to play something other than piano. So I pulled that saxophone out of the closet and joined the marching band. That's how I got started."
After attending Tennessee State College in Nashville, Crawford joined Ray Charles's band. During his time with the group, Crawford played baritone and alto and served as the outfit's musical director. He struck out on his own in 1963, leading his lineups to consistent critical acclaim. Twenty years later he signed to Milestone, an imprint that had inked McGriff several years earlier. Although Soul Survivors and two other discs by the Crawford/McGriff combo (Steppin' Up and On the Blue Side) established them as a team, the players continued to issue recordings on their own. As solo artists, they remain on Milestone, but the quartet officially moved to Telarc in 1994. Right Turn on Blue, the unit's Telarc bow, finds Crawford, McGriff, guitarist Rodney Jones and drummer Jesse Hameen in particularly good form, while this year's Blues Groove (in which McGriff sidemen Wayne Boyd and Vance James take over the guitar-and-drum duties) is just as diverting.
Boyd and drummer Don Williams fill out the quartet during dates on the current tour, and they'll have to work hard to keep up with Crawford and McGriff, who sound every bit as good now as they did a generation ago. The reason, Crawford believes, has to do with consistency and tradition. "They come up with new names, new styles, about every ten years. But basically, jazz never loses its roots. It's the roots of all that music: cool school, bebop, avant-garde, soul jazz. But the roots of jazz are always there. You can't get away from it. Jazz--that's what we're bringing."
"Today is one thing, and tomorrow is another," McGriff elaborates. "I can't promise nothing. But when people come out to see us, I try to work it where I see it working out. Then they'll be the ones talking after I leave."
Hank Crawford and Jimmy McGriff. 6:45 and 9:30 p.m., Dec. 13-14, Dakota's, 2401 15th St., $18.50-$22.50, 477-9700 or 830-
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.