downwithit.info writes: I have tried on downwithit.info to write about great music and open it up to anybody who is interested. One limitation is that I present little that is original, other than my own opinions. There have been no interviews and much has been obtained from secondary sources. It is, therefore, a great honour to be able to present this article which makes a unique contribution through interviews with artists and musical collaborators who knew Freddie Roach as a friend and colleague. It illuminates many aspects of FR’s artistry and clears up some puzzles from his later years. I am delighted to have permission to re-produce Pete Fallico’s excellent 2006 piece on a great master of the Hammond organ.
‘Under-recognized’ is an all-too common term used to describe jazz musicians who, for one reason or another, have not yet received the attention they deserve. Guitarist, Kenny Burrell speaks about his former band mate, Freddie Roach this way: “I just think Freddie was and is one of the most under-rated musicians that I knew. I had the pleasure of performing with him and recording with him and I always felt he never really got the credit that he deserved – the just due, as they say. He was just one of those guys who was so solid and musical but, I think, never really got the reviews or recognition that he deserved.”
‘Under-rated or ‘under-recognized’ are actually terms that can be used to describe the entire musical genre of Jazz Organ. This style of Jazz, that has employed the Hammond organ, would appear to be a microcosm within the microcosm of Jazz itself. There was a time not too long ago when the executive producers of large jazz events would not even consider a Jazz Organist unless his or her name appeared in Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia of Jazz. My charge, as I entered the world of jazz radio programming, was to change this. I have since tried to educate such people with respect to the myriad of Jazz Organists, world-wide, who have not been fortunate enough to come to the attention of Leonard Feather and others.
To be sure, I’ve taken an inexcusably long time to write about Freddie Roach (1931-1980). Never the less, I wanted to talk to as many folks as I could who knew Freddie personally and gather their comments before I submitted a ‘Jazz Organ Story’ on this most interesting American jazz musician. I hope that, through the words of those few remaining friends and musicians who knew Freddie, you will find this piece both interesting and worthwhile to read.
Fredrick Roach was born in the Bronx, New York on May 11, 1931. He grew up in a musical household. His mother was a church organist and his grandmother was a concert pianist and choir director. Her church was the Salem Baptist Church of Jersey City, New Jersey. Along with the musical instruction Freddie received from them, he also learned from an uncle named Robert Birchet who led his own big band and gave him lessons on the piano. As a pre-teenager, Freddie lived with an aunt in New Jersey who happened to have a pipe organ in her home. This is where young Freddie studied the dynamics of this great instrument as he began to teach himself to play the organ. When he was old enough to attend the Newark Conservatory, his studies became more formal. At age eighteen, he debuted as a professional musician with a group called ‘The Strollers’. Trombonist, Grachan Moncur III was the band leader.
Freddie joined the Marines during the Korean War and played in the Marine Corp Band. Upon his discharge from the service he began working in organ combos, sometimes doubling on piano. His reputation as an organist grew steadily from that point on. Starting in Canada, he worked his way down into the center of the Jazz Organ activity. He attracted the attention of drummer Chris Columbo, trumpeter Cootie Williams and finally Lou Donaldson. Although little has been written about Freddie Roach, his story seems to linger on in the hearts and minds of those who were close to him.
Tenor saxophonist, Herman Green and guitarist, Calvin Newborn met Freddie early-on in his career. Although both hailed from Memphis, they found themselves on the band stand in the New York arena with Freddie Roach. “I had a little group down in Asbury Park, New Jersey”, recalls Herman, “and we played the organ circuit with Calvin and myself and Freddie Roach and Billy Higgins”. Like most other jazz musicians, Herman made his pilgrimage to New York City to find work and develop his skills. “I had moved to New York City and I was working down at Asbury Park at the Capitol Lounge and they had organ groups that would come in there. I was playing at the Capitol and Freddie was playing at the Turf Club next door. That’s how we met”. Guitarist Calvin Newborn (younger brother of the late Phineas Newborn) joined Herman in this group and remembers this period of time as being most important. “Freddie did a lot of original music”, he says. “I would say that Freddie was one of the most Afro-centric organists I’ve played with. He was very creative. I would say he was almost as Afro-centric as Mingus and very particular about his music. He would get angry if you didn’t play it right. He was a very meticulous musician. Freddie wanted it to be just the way he wanted it to be and that’s how it turned out”. Herman supports this but adds: “He earned that respect as well. So that’s why we had a wonderful group. I’m sorry that we didn’t get a chance to record it but Atlantic was filled up with Jimmy Smith and all those other guys…like Johnny Hammond Smith…”
Another very important tenor saxophonist who Freddie met early on was Ike Quebec. Together they recorded two albums for Blue Note: ‘Heavy Soul’ (November 1961) and ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ (December 1961). Both of these sessions employed bassist Milt Hinton. This could have been a strategy for that time period; to cross over elements of the piano trio into the organ combo. Newark-based saxophonist, Buddy Terry, explains it this way: “Freddie had his own style because Ike Quebec and he were very good friends and when Freddie met Ike, he was a piano player. So Freddie was one of the few cats from around Newark who converted from the piano to the organ in a different style from that of other organ players. A lot of the organ players were not piano players. They played the keyboards but they really became organ players. Freddie brought the piano approach to the organ”. Adding bassist Milt Hinton to these recording sessions would therefore make sense as it did when bassists Major Holley or Earl May or Arthur Harper would record with Shirley Scott. In fact, Shirley, Johnny Hammond and Freddie are examples of capable organists who were recorded with bass players for production reasons but, on their own, were competent on the foot pedals. Buddy Terry adds this comment about Freddie’s footwork as an organist: “Freddie used to like to play the foot also. He used to like to show-off his little foot-thing, you know…so he would play the upper bass and then the foot thing”. (It’s been said that Freddie liked to run his left hand finger bass lines more toward the center of the lower manual, giving it more of a distinct sound than what was being heard at the time).
From all accounts, Freddie Roach was an original thinker who worked off the energy within his Newark environment. He felt it was important to bring local musicians into his music world; those who could relate best to his colloquial writing style and the spirit of the music in Newark at that point in time. One such musician was guitarist Vinnie Corrao. “I started playing with organ groups in my late teens”, reports Vinnie. “In the course of time, I met Freddie Roach. I was playing around town and I got to know him. Freddie became like a spiritual adviser to me to a great extent. It was great being with him. He was so artistic. He was into writing plays and poetry. He was a metaphysician. One of the albums we did together has some of those terms in it, like ‘Avatara’. I did at least two albums with Freddie (with) Buddy Terry on saxophone. I think I did one also with Eddie Gladden on drums…It’s been a while”. Another Newark musician who Freddie brought into the fold was saxophonist Conrad Lester, known to his friends as Connie. “Later on I couldn’t understand why Freddie used me”, admits Connie, “because, at the time, I didn’t have a big name. I was just the local guy playing… but Freddie liked my sound. Clarence must have told Freddie about me…so Freddie hired me. That’s when we went into the studio and had a good hit”. The ‘Clarence’ who Connie refers to is drummer Clarence Johnston who Freddie Roach would have a long and close musical relationship with. Clarence remembers that period of time well. “There were quite a few things that we did together”, he says proudly. “Whenever there were a lot of gigs around, Freddie would wait ‘til I was free to come and play them. Lot of times I would go out of town with maybe Sonny Stitt or maybe James Moody and Freddie would call me and I would say, ‘OK, I can make it at a certain date; certain time’. The biggest thing he did for me, I never will ever forget was when we started a recording date and we only had about five tunes on it and hadn’t completed it. I think we had to do seven more tunes and when I left town, I was thinking, ‘well, he’ll probably have another drummer to finish it off’ so when I did come back in town, he told me, ‘Hey are you back?’ and I said, ‘Yes’ and he said, ‘Well listen man, can we go and finish that album now?’. I said, ‘Freddie didn’t you finish that’ and he said, ‘No, I was waiting on you…you’re the only drummer on there so I just wanted to finish it with you’. Now, that just shows you how close we were. In fact, I didn’t realize how close we were until he did that and I said, ‘Geez’… now that’s beautiful. Here I come back almost two months later and then he decides to finish the album. I think we had a very close friendship. Whenever he had a gig, he hardly wouldn’t take it unless I was around to play it”.
It seemed that Freddie also took Clarence’s advice and recommendations when it came to hiring other musicians. “Clarence used to work with some big names”, Connie Lester says, “and he was a straight guy. He had a good beat. Kenny Burrell was also on some of the albums and then a local guitar player who really doesn’t get the credit that he should be getting; that was Eddie Wright. Eddie Wright was a terrific guitar player; one of the best in this area. Freddie used him on the ‘Mo Greens Please’ album. He used Clarence on drums and on some of the other albums he used Eddie Gladden”. For whatever reasons, Connie Lester was Freddie’s choice on several different recording sessions. “I traveled with Freddie Roach and did about three or four albums with him for Blue Note. The one called ‘All That’s Good’ (is where) I think he tried to do this ‘Donald Byrd type of thing’ where he had singers singing behind some of the things. I did one album with Freddie called ‘My People (Soul People)’ and on the cover it tells about the streets of Newark like Prince Street which was the ‘soul center’ of Newark and that inspired him to do a lot of his writing. Then Freddie did an album called ‘Down to Earth’ and I did the ‘Mo Greens Please’ album which got him a pretty good rating”. Connie quickly recalls the memorable rehearsals held at Freddie’s house as well as the actual Blue Note recording sessions which were becoming famous for their camaraderie. “He liked things to be right”, remembers Connie. “We used to rehearse in his house. He lived in Newark and he had like a loft there. It was almost like a theatre. He did a lot of play-writing, too. As a matter of fact, at the ‘Mo Greens Please’ album rehearsal, Alfred Lyons and his partner, Francis Wolf, were there. In those days, when you’d go to a (Blue Note) recording session, they would set-up a whole buffet of cold-cuts and different things. It was almost like a party when you went to do a recording date… and you would stay there until you got it all together. I recall staying in the studio probably seven or eight hours doing a whole album. That’s what we did with ‘Mo Greens Please’… but it was worth it because I recall at that time, we got a write-up in one of the magazines where we got a five-star rating on that album. They were playing it all over”.
I once made the analogy between Newark’s Freddie Roach and Los Angeles’ Paul Bryant only because they both were excellent Jazz Organists who dabbled in theater. Paul was a child actor and always kept one foot in the movie business while Freddie did some bit parts in movies and eventually made his way to the LA arena. More importantly, Freddie Roach incorporated theater into his music. As stated in the few interviews I collected, Freddie wrote plays, poetry and did much to encourage those around him to act and express themselves on stage. His own home was a theater in and of itself. “He had this theater right in his house”, recalls Connie Lester. “He lived up on Clinton Avenue in Newark and when you went to his house (you’d see) one side of his house was like a theater. That’s where we used to practice and get all of our albums together. He even had Woody Shaw on one of his albums and I remember rehearsing with Woody Shaw. A lot of the guys used to go there and rehearse plus Alfred Lyons himself would be there and Francis Wolf”. Freddie’s album, ‘Soul Book’ (recorded in 1966 for Prestige Records) is an example of how he blended his music with his play writing. Buddy Terry remembers it well: “That’s what the album, ‘Soul Book’ was about. That was the name of his play. He had, like a garage in the back of his house and he built it into a playhouse or theater. He used to give his plays there and so I used to go down and hang out with him all the time. He didn’t have much music in the plays, just himself playing”. For Buddy Terry, the relationship with Freddie Roach would turn out to be most fortuitous. “Freddie and I go way back. We go back to the early sixties. Thank God for Freddie because he got me my first recording session on Prestige Records in 1965 or 66” (‘Soul Book’). The organ thing for me ran from about 1957-58 through the early sixties”. Certainly, this was a time period when Jazz Organ was at its finest and the players in each of the organ combos that would perform in the so-called ‘chitlin-circuit’ knew of one another or were best of friends. “We all knew each other and we all went from group to group”, says Buddy. Saxophone players like Leo Johnson, Buddy Terry, Connie Lester, Herbie Morgan and others all played within this Newark circle and each had experiences with all the organists who came through town.
Within this circle is where Freddie Roach would create his own persona: one of an actor, story-teller, playwright and Jazz Organist. His organ style would be viewed as unique within an environment where a young Larry Young was emerging and an established Jimmy Smith was reigning. “He didn’t play the organ like you’d find most of these Jimmy Smith type organ players or even McDuff”, claims Connie Lester. “Freddie had his own style of playing. He wrote a lot of tunes. He got off of the Blues-type of organ sound”. “Freddie was always trying different things”, adds Buddy Terry. “You see his mind set was different than that of a lot of people. He wasn’t an ordinary fella. He was a great talent; a genius with his thinking; his writing; his poetry”. Another famous Jazz Organist from Newark, New Jersey was Rhoda Scott. She knew Freddie Roach before she left to live in France (1968) and occasionally saw him on visits back home. “I think he was ahead of his time”, she admits. “If he were alive today, his writing would be recognized. He would be produced and would be a name that counts in literature”. Rhoda remembers that Freddie used another name for his playwriting. “He had a pseudonym that was actually fairly well-known but I can’t remember it at this point. Actually I had already left for France and, coming back on occasion, he invited me once to come hear and see one of his plays but I unfortunately didn’t make it. It was at this occasion that I learned his other name. Many people don’t realize that Freddie Roach and this playwright are one and the same”. Freddie and Rhoda spent time together discussing life and sharing perspectives. “He was an interesting person”, she says, “who channeled all his energy into his creativity. He used to come and sit in some time when I played in Newark. He was always original, not in the Jimmy Smith bag nor in the style that Larry Young was just beginning to create but really doing his own thing and not really worrying about what the others were doing. He was more of an introvert, but there was a lot happening inside”.
Apparently for reasons known only to a few people, Freddie Roach embarked upon a trip westward near the end of his life. Most who knew him, recall the move and yet have been unable to explain it. Here’s Connie Lester’s account: “I remember when he went to California; for some strange reason he had just stopped playing around here for a while and he went to California. I don’t think he went there musically. I think he went there to do some theater-type work. He was out there doing that and, I think, he had a heart attack. He had left the scene around here for whatever he went into. I worked with him up to that period of time when he left”. Guitarist Vinnie Corrao offers less in his recollection: “He had moved to California and, from what I understand, that’s where he passed… but I was shocked to hear it because I hadn’t seen him in a while. I had moved away from the Newark area and the next thing I heard was that Freddie passed”. Buddy Terry was also working with Freddie off and on until this departure. “The last time I saw Freddie was just before he died, I’d say, 1980. He went out to California and we didn’t even know he went until he got out there. I don’t have a clue as to the reason. I had no idea, I thought maybe he just wanted to change locations and try something different… He was a great guy and we go way back as friends and as musicians. I traveled on the road with him and made that one album with him. It was just wonderful”.
During the 49 years that he spent on this earth, Freddie Roach learned to play piano, organ, flute, bass, drums and vibraphone. He wrote poetry and incorporated it into his music. He wrote plays for theater and encouraged his friends and fellow musicians to engage in the theatrics so closely related to music. He became one of the most creative and expressive Jazz Organists this country has produced. Let us remember Freddie Roach as an original thinker and creative force in Jazz and, more importantly, Jazz Organ, one of our indigenous contributions to the Arts.
Pete Fallico, January 2006
Doodlin’ Lounge is Pete’s website. It is superb. Don’t miss visiting it!