Music News & Reviews

Jazz Town: KC organist Chris Hazelton brings soul-jazz to life at Green Lady Lounge

Chris Hazelton and the Boogaloo 7 at work at the Green Lady Lounge, where they have a regular gig on Friday nights. That’s Brett Jackson with the baritone sax.
Chris Hazelton and the Boogaloo 7 at work at the Green Lady Lounge, where they have a regular gig on Friday nights. That’s Brett Jackson with the baritone sax.

Thirty years ago, jazz on the Hammond B3 organ seemed to be on the way out. But look at it now: The instrument has attracted young players all over the globe, and they’re burning it up.

Around Kansas City, few are more into it than Chris Hazelton, who sounds like a veteran B3 burner at the age of 31. Hazelton usually mans the keys and pedals at the Green Lady Lounge at least twice a week, in small groups and in his brash, horn- and percussion-driven Boogaloo 7. (This week, his quartet is on at 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, and the Boogaloo 7 is on at 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21.)

Describing his style, he says: “A lot of guys try to play the instrument with more finesse, and I can certainly appreciate that. But for me it’s a hard-hitting instrument, and I like to play it like that — not to say that it needs to be blaring loud, but heavy. It’s a heavy instrument, and it should be played as such, in my opinion.”

Hazelton plays the style like he has been doing it for 30 years — but he says organ jazz didn’t even enter his consciousness until college.

He grew up in Olathe, interested in acting, singing and dancing. His first instrument was piano, and later he took up guitar and bass. He got into jazz, he says, through his interest in dancing.

“I used to go swing dancing every week in high school. They would have a live band there. … Through dancing I connected with (guitarist) Rod Fleeman and other jazz musicians, and I studied with Rod on guitar for a while.

“Really, dancing has been the foundation of my jazz career. I always try to make music that moves the feet and the booty.”

He went to college in Greeley, Colo., to study musical theater, but he moved back home after two years. “I studied jazz at Kansas City Kansas Community College and the University of Everette DeVan.”

To clarify: At KCKCC, jazz educator Jim Mair steered Hazelton back to the piano, because there was already a good bassist in the band. Then Mair learned that Hazelton was into Medeski, Martin and Wood, a group that emerged in the ’90s and sparked new interest in jazz organ. “He said, ‘If you like that instrument, you need to go check out Everette DeVan.’ 

Hazelton said he’d never even seen a B3 when, underage, he snuck into a local club that shall not be named here to investigate DeVan, Kansas City’s still-reigning boss of the B3.

“The first night I watched him, my jaw was on the floor,” Hazelton says. “I thought, ‘Holy cow, this is what I was destined to play.’ 

After a few weeks of haunting DeVan’s gigs, Hazelton convinced DeVan to invite him over for a lesson. And Hazelton began applying the skills he already had to the organ’s keys and pedals: “It was finally a matter of combining my piano and bass theories into one instrument.”

Studying with DeVan, he says, “was more an apprenticeship than anything. He would have me come to gigs and sit in, kind of a baptism by fire. If he wasn’t available or had double-booked himself, he’d plug me into things he thought I could handle.” The apprenticeship lasted about a year.

Then Hazelton began taking some gigs of his own, forming a group called Grandpa’s Cough Syrup. He became more active as a sideman and gained confidence as a leader.

His first CD as leader, “Peregrination,” appeared in 2012, using a trio filled out by KC jazz guitar hero Danny Embrey and drummer Kevin Frazee. It’s a fine introduction. But Hazelton had a more ambitious idea up his sleeve.

Early in 2013, a club offered Hazelton a gig with enough money to support a band considerably bigger than the trio. He is a fan of classic records like Lonnie Smith’s “Move Your Hand,” or Charles Earland’s “Black Talk,” where the organ is surrounded by horns and heavy percussion, and thought about reviving that sound.

He called some horn-playing friends, including trumpeter Nick Howell and saxophonist Nick Rowland, whom he has made music with since high school, and added a percussionist and others. They wound up with seven pieces. Hazelton was thinking it was a “one-night deal,” but it went over so well that repeat bookings followed.

Then Green Lady Lounge honcho John Scott, a big supporter of organ jazz, caught the band and offered it a residency. Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 (with Rowland, Howell, baritone saxophonist Brett Jackson, guitarist Matt Hopper, drummer Danny Rojas and percussionist Pat Conway) has been a Green Lady fixture for nearly three years and continues to rule Friday nights there.

The Boogaloo 7 will soon have an album, called “Soul Jazz Fridays” in honor of that residency on Grand Boulevard. It’s set to come out next month on CD and vinyl.

“It’s certainly the most ambitious project I’ve ever undertaken,” Hazelton says. “We did it live at the Green Lady, playing the same set three times in a row. I’m a perfectionist.”

Hazelton, a married man with a baby on the way, has a full plate with a day job and a demanding gig schedule. And he’s adding to that by running a small record label to promote his own music and the music of some friends. Sunflower Soul Records tends to do things the old-fashioned way — analog recording, spring reverb and tube amplifiers — “the way this music was meant to be heard,” he says. Most of their products so far have been 45 rpm records, including two by the Boogaloo 7.

See? Even his recordings take a sweetly old-school approach. It works well for Hazelton, who’s giving old-school soul-jazz a new life in Kansas City — and making people dance.

It looks like organ jazz isn’t going away any time soon.

Noteworthy

▪ A distinctive Los Angeles singer, Denise Donatelli, took her time to earn recognition in the jazz world. She put her music career on the back burner for a few years for home and family. But now she has come back strong, making intriguing albums, working with the best musicians and earning a Grammy nomination along the way. Donatelli comes to town for an appearance at the Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 22. She’s reportedly bringing two players who also deserve more recognition, bassist Ed Howard and tenor saxophonist Don Braden.

▪ The reconfigured Jazz Winterlude at Johnson County Community College gets underway Oct. 16 with the first of five concerts — and still more organ jazz. This one has guitarist Will Matthews and his burning organ trio, with organist Bobby Floyd and drummer Marty Morrison. They’ll perform at 7 p.m. in the Polsky Theatre in Carlsen Center. Tickets are $20. On JCCC’s midday jazz series, bassist Bob Bowman plays in the Recital Hall in Carlsen Center at noon Oct. 18.

▪ The Blue Room also has the Jazz Disciples running the Monday jam, at 7 p.m. Oct. 17. Saxophonist Todd Wilkinson’s quartet performs at 7 p.m. Oct. 20, and the quartet of keyboardist Rich Hill and reed man Charles Perkins appears at 8:30 p.m. Oct. 21.

▪ It’s time for another live performance/recording session for the “12th Street Jump” radio program. Percussionist Gary Helm joins the regular crew to salute the music of Poncho Sanchez. It’s at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Green Lady Lounge.

▪ The Green Lady also has pianist Michael Pagán’s trio at 5 p.m. Oct. 16, followed by trumpeter Stan Kessler’s Crossroads Quartet at 9:30 p.m.; drummer Todd Strait’s trio at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 17, followed by Will Matthews’ organ trio at 9 p.m.; the group Dojo at 7 p.m. Oct. 18, followed by the Sequel Quartet at 10:30 p.m.; organist Ken Lovern’s OJT at 9 p.m. Oct. 19; saxophonist Ernest Melton with Lovern and drummer Ray DeMarchi at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 20; pianist Tim Whitmer at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 21, followed by keyboardist Max Groove with Melton at 8:30 p.m.; and OJT again at 6 p.m. Oct. 22, with tenor saxophonist Steven Lambert’s group at 9 p.m.

Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751

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