The 30-minute ensemble showcases at the annual Chamber Music America conference typically run the gamut from string quartets to small jazz combos to the occasional outlier—a reed quintet (which replaces the flute and French horn of standard wind quintets with a saxophone and bass clarinet), a klezmer band, or at the most recent conference, a duo of trumpet and kora (the 21-string harp-lute played in Mali, Senegal, and the Gambia). But one of the most unusual groups ever to be presented at the CMA conference, in 2016, was an organ trio fronted by Greg Lewis (a.k.a. Organ Monk). A virtuoso on a Hammond B-3 electric organ accompanied by electric guitar and drums set has been a popular instrumental combination for soul, jazz, and R&B for more than half a century, but the material performed by Lewis and his sidemen—a standard, a Thelonious Monk classic, and some Lewis originals—took the format to some unexpected places. The music was contrapuntally intricate yet super funky, and often incredibly loud. Their rendition of “Lulu’s Back in Town” was joyously raucous and their take on Monk was appropriately off-kilter. But the new material was what was the most revelatory.
Each of Lewis’s pieces was dedicated to an African American who had been killed during confrontations with police officers. Of course music, unless it involves singers and sung words or an interpolated spoken word narration, is more abstract and introspective than a news report can ever be. But merely attaching a verbal title to an instrumental composition anchors it for listeners and has the potential to serve as an outlet for a deep emotional interface with a topic that can transcend an immediate reaction to a fleeting headline. Think, for example, how a work like Penderecki’s searing Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima conveys the horrors of atomic warfare in a way that is far more visceral than reading a history book (even though the title was actually an afterthought). Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and the horrific episodes that led to their deaths have been permanently etched into the general public’s conscience. But Lewis, by affixing their names to his musical compositions, provides a platform for their stories to enter our subconscious and for audiences to pay tribute to who these people were. This music, though at times dirge-like and appropriately angry, is ultimately resilient and celebratory; it allows us not only to mourn their deaths but to remember their lives.
When we visited with Lewis in his Bedford-Stuyvesant apartment last year, he described several terrifying interactions that he personally had with police officers. As a black man living in an American city, the experiences of Brown, Garner, and Martin hit really close to home. As an aspiring musician, Lewis was drawn to jazz, specifically because it has been such a socially conscious music. He acknowledged as role models John Coltrane as well as Charles Mingus, citing in particular his “Fables of Faubus” which was composed as a protest against Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus, who ordered National Guard troops to prevent the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957.
“That’s the biggest goal that I would love to get to accomplish, to try to get everybody to see what’s going on,” explained Lewis. “Culture is your weapon. I don’t like to say weapon because you get scared when you say weapon, but the music is sort of a weapon to use to fight the craziness that’s going on in the most non-violent way.”
Lewis started out as a pianist who was heavily into Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, as well other lesser-known greats from the 1950s and ‘60s such as Elmo Hope and Kenny Drew. But at one point while he was still a student at the New School in New York City, Lewis’s teacher, keyboardist Gil Coggins (who recorded with Miles Davis), asked him to sub a gig for him and, unbeknownst to him beforehand, it turned out to be an organ gig for which he was completely unprepared. The different feel of the instrument, which at first was a hindrance, soon became an obsession. He started out on a Korg, but he now owns four different classic Hammond B-3s since, as he claims, “each Hammond organ gives me love different.” He initially devoured recordings by Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, and even Tower of Power, but he strove to find his own voice on the instrument.
At first that voice was heavily shaped by Monk and finding a way to interpret Monk’s extremely idiosyncratic piano figurations on an electric organ. In 2010, he self-released his first album, a trio disc of Monk covers called Organ Monk in which he is joined by two musical luminaries, guitarist Ron Jackson (who has performed with Rufus Reid and Randy Weston) and drummer Cindy Blackman (who has played with Steve Coleman, Ron Carter, and Ravi Coltrane, as well as Vernon Reid, Lenny Kravitz, and Carlos Santana, to whom she is now married). On his second recording, a quintet outing called American Standard which was a JJA Jazz Awards nominee in 2013, he tackles a collection of famous standards including “Tea for Two,” which he totally makes his own, and “Lulu’s Back in Town.”
But his own compositions had yet to appear on recording until the release finally this month of his third album which includes all five of his pieces created in memory of those killed during altercations with the police, which he collectively calls The Breathe Suite in honor of Eric Garner’s tragic last words. The composition of the full piece was supported by a grant from Chamber Music America. For Lewis, it was not only very important to find a viable way to respond to what had happened but to put it in a tangible form that he hopes he can share with the victims’ families.
“I can’t protest, because if I protest I go to jail. And if I go to jail, I can’t feed my five kids. So what I can do is what I do: I write music. … I want to get this record to each of the people … Even if it brings joy for just a minute to these families, that’s what I can do.”