Organist Gene Ludwig: 1937-2010

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Gene Ludwig
About Gene Ludwig

Some say he stole the show that night... the fella from Pittsburgh who showed up late that afternoon, missing the sound check and sort of looking like anyone's junior high math teacher as he strolled around backstage at the 1994 Newark Jazz Organ Jam waiting for his turn to play. As I introduced myself to him, I remember his hands being huge, reminding me of what a bricklayer's hands might be like: long, thick fingers and wide palms. I had looked forward to meeting Gene Ludwig in person. I was trying so hard to be impartial as I listened to each organist who played that night but deep down I, too, felt that Gene grooved harder than the others... I really do love everybody that sits at that bench... no matter who they are or what kind of music they play... but somehow, those who reach the audience quicker and with the most passion, leave me with the more lasting impression. It didn't take me long to figure out what Gene did to that crowd that night to get the response that he got and win over so many new fans: HE PLAYED THE BLUES... That's what those folks came to hear. They wanted to be taken back in time to the old days of the 'Organ Rooms' where every club had a B-3 on the stage and smokey, inner city soul jazz was the gravy of life. When Gene kicked off with Jimmy Smith's 'The Sermon,' he was telling that crowd that there's still truth in this music... it hasn't left us and never will... and more importantly, he wasn't afraid to play Jimmy's sound. As an admitted disciple, he was reminding us just how important this is to us all. Gene Ludwig has always been that kind of a player. He knows where he came from and how he got where he is... no frills, nothing pretentious... just SOLID ORGAN GROOVE... That's Gene Ludwig.

For the next few days in Newark, jazz fans were poking around record stores asking who this Gene Ludwig was and did he have any records out.... All they needed to do was ask any one from Pittsburgh. As Gene, himself would tell you; 'I'm the only one cartin' the Hammond around still, here in Pittsburgh."

Gene was born in Twin Rocks, Pennsylvania on September 4, 1937. Four years later his family moved to Swissvale where Gene spent most of his youth and graduated from Swissvale High in 1955. His mother provided young Gene with piano lessons as early as the first grade and witnessed his musical growth from then on. She would have preferred that he became a concert pianist but soon realized that his musical preference lay in Rhythm and Blues. After two years at Edinboro State Teachers College and a series of jobs, he was ready to make a life long commitment. He had spent many a night watching and listening to musicians like Ramsey Lewis, Horace Silver, Ahmad Jamal and Ray Bryant at The Crawford Grill and the Hi-Hat but when he experienced Jimmy Smith for the first time his mind was made up. “From '43 to about '55, I took formal training on piano," recounts Gene, “Around '57 I met Jimmy Smith and heard the Hammond...and I knew that's what I wanted to be: a Hammond organ player." Gene saw Jimmy at Pittsburgh's famous Hurricane owned by Birdie Dunlap- truly a mecca for the Jazz Organ Sound. Gene was bit by the bug before he had a chance to know what it was all about. “Around 1949, 1950, I used to hear swing organ on the air and it happened to be Bill Davis and Bill Doggett...but all I had heard was the big, full, block chords and I was into piano and (then) when I heard Jimmy playing on the air, he was playing single lines like a pianist or like a horn and I said, 'Oh wow! ... This is amazing' and then when I first saw him play and I heard him live, my God, it was awesome, it was really awesome."

Gene's first Jazz Organ Combo was led by tenor saxophonist, Sonny Stanton. They gigged around town in places like, the Hi-Hat on the Northside, Mason's in the Hill, Tropics in Braddock and Dave's Walnut Inn in McKeesport. They traveled to Cleveland before Gene switched to another quartet led by Gene Barr. This group ventured out even further going to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Buffalo. By this time, Gene's musical career was firmly rooted in the organ genre. “Once I started playing organ, that was about 1958, I sort of shied away from the piano because I wanted to put all my efforts into the organ and for all of, I'd say, twenty or twenty-five years, my main forte was the organ up until about ten years ago." Making the switch from piano to organ was easy for Gene. “Originally, I started out on an M-100 which is like a spinet Hammond and the left hand bass left a lot to be I had to play the little cluster of pedals there, thirteen pedals, just an octave. That's where I weaned myself until I got to a bigger organ; then I got to a much bigger, broader, fuller sound...and it didn't take too much coordination, I just sort of naturally fell into it." Gene, like so many others was forced to take piano gigs and play synthesizers during the eighties just to survive. It's almost as if many of the great jazz organists from that era have come around full circle in their playing. “I've become very comfortable with piano now," says Gene. He, like Shirley Scott and others, can now be commercially successful with both instruments. Back in 1962, however, the most important thing for a player like Gene Ludwig was being able to play rooms like the Hurricane and stay within the pack of Jazz Organists. “That's where I met Jimmy and after that I went up and I saw Milt Buckner... I saw Johnny Hammond Smith, Oh gee...I saw Groove Holmes up there and Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff..." No wonder why Gene was thrilled to play this same room eight weeks out of the year with his own trio from '62 until it closed because of the '68 riots. Drummer Randy Gillespie was with him throughout this period and sometimes Jerry Byrd. This trio was first recorded on the local label, LaVere. It was also at this time when Billy Driscoll became Gene's manager. Billy was able to connect Gene with the same booking agency that handled Dinah Washington, which translated into even better gigs. In fact, one night while playing in Newark, Nesuhi Ertegun from Atlantic Records stopped by to hear Gene's trio and wound up offering them a record date. The resulting tune, 'Sticks and Stones' got favorable air play in Pittsburgh. An album followed this on the Mainstream label called Organ Out Loud (#6032) and in 1966, 'Mother Blues' was released on the Jo-Da label. (An additional recording from this period can be found on Travis, #707) Gene, himself, was doing a little record producing with his own label which he called, Ge-Lu Records ('This is Gene Ludwig,' GL-1415).

It was in 1969 that Gene got a chance to record with Sonny Stitt. This would become the start of a valuable musical relationship for Gene. “Oh, those were very good times," recalls Gene, “Sonny sort of took me under his wing and he taught me a lot. I had about fifteen years of experience before I joined him in the jazz thing but I thought know...I didn't know as much as I thought I did until I worked with him." This musical education for Gene came as organist, Don Patterson was leaving Sonny's band. “I was working with a drummer, Randy Gillespie who lives up in Lansing now. We had a trio together for years and when the guitarist that I was working with from Pittsburgh went with Jack McDuff's group, I locked up with Wilbert Longmire from Cincinatti...then Wilbert left the band and Pat Martino joined us." Gene co-led this group with Pat and worked up and down the East Coast. “Pat decided to leave when me and Randy worked with Sonny Stitt." Pat did, however, appear with this group on Sonny Stitt's 'Night Letter' record of 1970 for Prestige (#7759). Although his work with Sonny Stitt would cover only a year's time, he gladly comments; “It was one of the fondest memories of my career." Once back in Pittsburgh, Gene hooked up with multi-reed talent, Bill Easley and later Walt Maddox before more limelight was cast upon him in the form of Arthur Prysock. Gene would go on the road with Prysock in 1974 and once again in 1979, all the time supporting local groups and vocalists in his home town when he could. It was also a time when Gene would record again, this time for Joe Fields at Muse Records. Gene's Now's The Time (MR-5164) offered a great mix of Jazz Organ grooves in a time when Jazz Organ was harder than ever to sell to the public.

When Joey DeFrancesco came on the scene with the backing of Columbia Records, Jazz Organists all over the country started dusting off their organs and pulling out their drawbars. Gene was right there with the best of them welcoming the return of his favorite instrument to the modern music scene. He appeared at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland and made numerous stops in and around the Eastern cities. In fact, soon after Don Patterson passed away in 1988, Gene performed in Don's birthplace, Columbus Ohio where Don was honored posthumously. Gene even accepted the award on his behalf and handed it over to Don's mother. He played the next year with Hank Marr in Columbus and, more recently, has been organizing his own Jazz Organ Jams in Shadyside (Pittsburgh area) at a club called The Balcony. Gene has brought two of his three organs to the gig so that he and Jack McDuff, Joey DeFrancesco and Papa John DeFrancesco can play together in his 'ExtravOrganza.' Locally, Gene has played at Esta-Esta in Monroeville, Baby O's in Greensburg and the Keystone Elks in Washington, Pennsylvania. He has recorded new material with guitarist, Randy Caldwell ('The American Underground,' Jazz Highway 5002) and also with his own group comprised of Tony Janflone on guitar, Dan Muchony on drums and George Jones on percussion. For Gene Ludwig, the Hammond organ never really left the scene... He has been and will continue to be one of this country's most passionate exponents of Jazz Organ and as he once told me; “I have an A-100 Hammond in my game room and I keep two B-3's in my garage... I'm ready to go when I get my calls."

(UPDATE--2005) With the release of Gene's 1998 CD titled “Back on the Track," came a resurgence of fresh energy. His career has once again moved forward in both recording and touring on a national basis. CD sales reflect this renewed interest in Gene's work as well as his status in the ranks of Jazz Organ. Three other CD's have since been released, “Soul Serenade" in 2000;"The Groove Organization" in 2002; and his current “Hands On" in 2003. A live recording from the Blue Note in Las Vegas is awaiting release in 2005. All of Gene's recent work has been praised for its energy and hard driving groove. Also of note are the great articles that have been appearing in publications like Downbeat and Jazziz. It's always good to get some ink and see Gene's mug out there.

Live performances have also kept Gene busy. He has appeared at the 2001 San Francisco Jazz Festival; Birdland in NYC; and the 2003 Stanford Jazz Festival for the Stanford Jazz Workshop. Other recent appearances include several gigs at The Blue Note in NYC and a special appearance at the Blue Note in Las Vegas in 2002. Gene isn't kidding when he says he's 'ready to go.' He has dropped everything and driven his van out to New Jersey to play Trumpet's and later the Newark Museum of Art Summer Jazz Series (2004). He has also traveled to Yonkers for a recent organ jam with McGriff and others from the Harlem organ scene. Of particular note, however, was his re-union concert with his original trio of guitarist, Jerry Byrd and drummer, Randy Gelispie that took place in Cleveland in the fall of 2004.

Keep your eyes and ears on Geno...he's likely to show up in your neck'o the woods soon.

Pete Fallico--January 1997 and February 2005

Praise for Gene Ludwig

“Tradition, the handing down of customs, beliefs and stories from generation to generation, runs especially strong among jazz organists. They are a select crew, after all, piloting Jazz' Spruce Goose, the technically marvelous Hammond B-3 organ, through the turbulence of time and popular taste. It's no easy feat, of course, co-ordinating hands and feet, keys and pedals with mind and spirit. It's no secret either that, when done right, the Hammond beast soars like nothing else. Its twists and turns, jives and grooves, speak, communicate and resonate with you. Academics call this “soul-jazz." Fans call it good music. Gene Ludwig calls it a career, a life's work. Playing organ since 1958, Ludwig's craft is an ongoing admiration of masters who came before, of traditions, of truth. Explaining it with words gets academic and dry. We'll let Gene explain it, let him take us on the ride." --ALL ABOUT JAZZ

Excerpt from a review of “Hands On" in the Philadelphia Inquirer Aug. 28, 2005.... “The Pittsburgh-based Gene Ludwig, who played Philly's Zanzibar Blue this month, remains a formidable cat of the stun-and-gun jazz organ school. Whether it's slinky grooves or moments of pure takeoff, Ludwig and his quartet are proficient at this nasty and necessary art." --Karl Stark

“As always, Gene Ludwig's playing is as powerful as you can get! ...My own personal feelings about Ludwig as a major player go as far back as the early 1960's when we co-led a great organ trio including Randy Gelispie on drums. On Soul Serenade, his playing is stronger than ever and keeps on growing!" --Pat Martino

“Gene always plays the organ like it's supposed to be played.. He's a fine player and does it the correct way! --Dr. Lonnie Smith

“Gene's hung in there like the rest of us have. He's a very good player, a good-hearted guy, and the man can play!" --Jimmy McGriff

“We've been playing together for years and years... A nice fella and he's a good musician!" --Jack McDuff

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