Jazz musician Gregory Lewis performing on the Hammond organ at St. Peter's Church in New York City. COURTESY THE ARTIST
Jazz musician Gregory Lewis performs on the Hammond organ at the Blue Note in New York City. COURTESY THE ARTIST
The cover of Gregory Lewis's new album Organ Monk Going Home. COURTESY THE ARTIST
Gregory Lewis was raised in New York City in a musical household where he was surrounded by a diverse selection of influences and genres — including funk, soul and jazz.
“I grew up with a piano in the house,” Lewis explained. “My father was a pianist. But unfortunately, he died when I was 11, so I didn’t get to learn that much from him. He used to say ‘Don’t bang on it.’”
Though he didn’t have his father’s firsthand skillset to learn from, Lewis’s musical education continued through his father’s impressive record collection, which included the music of the great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.
Lewis, a trained pianist, carried on in his father’s footsteps and began playing piano professionally as a teen. As a young musician himself, his earliest invitations into the world of music performance came, not via jazz, but through the spiritual route — the houses of worship he grew up attending with his family.
“I liked Monk and Bud Powell, so when I was offered a church gig in my teens, I thought that was so corny,” Lewis confessed.
But the church music that Lewis was less than thrilled about performing in his youth has, in an odd way, come to define his entire musical career — not in terms of the compositions, per se, but rather the instrument. That’s because Lewis has made a name for himself in the world of jazz by performing on the Hammond B3 organ, and the music that he specializes in is that of the legendary Thelonious Monk.
On Friday, February 9, at 6 p.m., the Gregory Lewis Organ Monk Trio will perform in concert at the Parrish Art Museum as part the Hamptons Jazz Fest’s winter series.
“I played there once before, in 2022, coming out in the pandemic,” said Lewis who was introduced to the East End after meeting Hamptons Jazz Fest co-founder Joel Chriss, who encouraged him to come play out here. “He’s the guy who made everything happen. People seem to like what I do out there.”
Lewis’s concert at the Parrish on Friday will also serve as a record release performance of “Organ Monk Going Home,” his sixth studio album and his first with Sunnyside Records.
For Lewis, the idea that he could even attempt to reinterpret the music of Thelonious Monk on the organ first dawned on him when he heard another musician — jazz organist Larry Young — do just that on his 1966 album.
“In college, I heard Larry Young’s Unity record where he played ‘Monk’s Dream,’” Lewis recalled. “I loved what he and [drummer] Elvin Jones did on that turn. I thought, ‘Wow! I can take other Monk tunes and transform them on the organ.’ And people seem to like it, because no other organ player is doing Monk on organ.”
And what a versatile organ it is. Invented by Laurens Hammond and John M. Hanert, the Hammond organ was introduced to the public in 1935.
“Hammond first built it for the church crowd,” Lewis explained. “Most churches couldn’t afford a pipe organ. But if you bought a Hammond in 1935, it was a $1,000 organ. That’s a lot of money, but it’s a lot less than a pipe organ. Turns out the clubs liked it, rock and roll guys liked it. Everyone fell in love with it and the rest is history.”
When asked what he likes about the Hammond B3 organ and using it to interpret Monk, Lewis said, “The thing that grabs you is the sonic sounds of the organ. Monk is percussive on piano, like he’s drumming on it — like striking it. I can’t do that on the organ, but I can lay on sonic sounds. They become a different beast.”
The unique thing about the Hammond is that it uses sliding draw bars that create the different sounds, which gives Lewis a great deal of flexibility in his performance.
“One note can be nine notes with draw bars pulled out,” he said. “I’m not disrespecting the piano, but it becomes bigger physically, because of the sonic sound.”
When asked exactly how Monk’s piano compositions change when played on the Hammond B3, Lewis said, “On the organ, you have to hold the note for there to be sound. For me, I feel it elongates it, because I can hold the notes. It forces me to hold those dissonant chords longer.
“That’s a lot of fun, to be able to hold those dissonant minor seconds, those tensions Monk has in his chord changes which a lot of people hated — like Miles Davis — he didn’t like that,” he added. “I like the way that feels, it feels really powerful. That’s why the church likes it. Those sonically big chords grab everybody’s attention, whether they like or not. The vibration, the tubes, the instrument being an amazing instrument, comes through with tones that are warm and loud.
“Everyone on this planet has heard an organ at some point. There’s no way to play an organ and be quiet background.”
Though he never studied with an organist, as a student at NYU, Lewis did take an organ class that focused on classical music and learned the rudiments of the instrument, including the foot work.
“But the jazz stuff and Monk, I did on my own. Once I figured out the draw bars I like, now it’s second nature,” he said.
With this concert at the Parrish comes the release of “Organ Monk Going Home,” and the cover of Lewis’s new album features a photograph of him sitting near a pair of elephants. Lewis explains that the photo was taken during his 2023 trip to Zimbabwe, which he describes as life changing.
“I was there last January. I thought, ‘I’ve got to put these elephants on the cover,’” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Wow, it’s like going home — going full circle — when you know your history.”
Lewis’s trip to Zimbabwe came about because of his regular gig at Sista’s Place, a jazz venue in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood.
“It was owned by Viola Plummer, who was in her 80s — she passed this week. She was an activist and an amazing woman,” said Lewis. “She knew [Zimbabwe’s president Robert] Mugabe and Gaddafi. They invited me to hear Mugabe speak at the U.N., I was sitting on the first floor with heads of states.”
That led to an invitation to Lewis to travel to Zimbabwe, which he did last January where he was able to get to know Africa up close and personal — experiencing both the complex difficulties and the natural wonders of the continent.
“Robert Mugabe was supposed to be a puppet dictator for the queen, but unfortunately, he ended up ravaging the land,” said Lewis. “He died in his 90s. The people there are not starving, but they’re not doing well. They can’t trade their resources because of sanctions.
“They want our resources and education,” he added. “Bob Marley was the last big artist to go there, right before Mugabe kicked out the Brits.”
On the other side of the coin, Lewis saw firsthand the natural beauty of Zimbabwe in a way that has truly changed his life.
“We went to Victoria Falls, we went to Rhodes’s grave. It was an amazing experience,” he said. “I had been to Ivory Coast and Guinea, but this time it was more special. I could see these things, hang with elephants on their turf, not in a zoo. That picture on the album is real. They’re very intelligent. When you stand close, the elephants will let you know if they accept you.
“It was one of the highlights of my life, I want to go back in the worst way,” added Lewis, who hopes to soon begin performing overseas. “I feel like everyone on the planet should go and see the beauty of the motherland, no matter what race you are.”
The Gregory Lewis Organ Monk Trio with Gregory Lewis on organ, Kevin McNeal on guitar and Nasheet Waits on drums performs on Friday, February 9, at 6 p.m. as part of Hamptons Jazz Fest at the Parrish Art Museum, 279 Montauk Highway, Water Mill. The show is a record release performance of the group’s sixth studio album, “Organ Monk Going Home,” their first record with Sunnyside Records. Tickets are $30 ($28 seniors,$25 members, $15 students, $5 children). Visit parrishart.org for details.
One fine body…