Gerard Gibbs isn’t convinced the organ is obsolete. “A lot of people have declared the Hammond B3 organ dead, but right now I think it is experiencing a serious resurgence be it in popular music, rock, R&B or jazz,” says the 36-year-old organist and keyboardist. See, Gibbs considers himself a crusader of sorts. During the 1960s, organists Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith, “Big” John Patton, Jack McDuff and “Wild” Bill Davis helped popularize the instrument. Gibbs just wants to keep it in style.
And why shouldn’t he? After all, the man can make his organ sound like a group of Sunday worshipers, or as graceful as a ballroom dancer. And live he’s a stunner: He can handle the 400-pound beast like it’s a puppet, making it hop on the bandstand.
His bass lines are earthy and eerie, qualities he absorbed by spending countless hours as a kid listening to albums by organist Richard “Groove” Holmes. Forget toys and cartoons, Gibbs wanted jazz, particularly Holmes’. When he was 5, Gibbs’ pop took him to Baker’s Keyboard Lounge to meet the celebrated organist. Eight years later, Holmes schooled Gibbs.
“Groove was the first nationally recognized organist that took time out with me to sit me down and show me the fundamentals of this instrument. So that is why I have made it my life mission to continue the crusade because the jazz organ is an art form popularized by black men,” Gibbs says.
As a kid, Gibbs also studied classical piano, but gravitated to the organ because he liked the sound and mechanics of the instrument. His parents encouraged the music but they were, of course, adamant about him getting a college education. When Gibbs’ grades slipped at Cass Technical High School, his dad made him quit the school band. The lesson must have worked because, after graduating, Gibbs enrolled at the University of Michigan and earned a degree in architecture in 1990.
At college Gibbs played keyboards in a band called Cadeau ABous. After graduation he worked as an architectural engineer for the city of Detroit and filled his nights playing local nightclubs. He first professional gig as a keysman came with saxophonist Mike Fleming at local club the Boardroom. He also gigged regularly with flutist Althea Rene, guitarist Calvin Brooks, saxophonist Marion Meadows, and David Myles and Mylestone. In 1992, Gibbs formed the electric quartet RZY, and they performed Thursday nights at Flood’s Bar & Grille. Four years later, he started the hard-swinging band ORGANized Crime.
“I didn’t start digging my nails into the organ until 1995,” he says. “Me and trumpeter Rayse Biggs purchased a Hammond BC organ in 1995 that was my first organ, which now Rayse keeps in his recording studio.” In 1999, Gibbs purchased his first B3, the primo model.
Musical life for Gibbs seemed to have a vertical trajectory. Offers poured in for his services as a leader and a sideman. Last year, Gibbs quit his job to play full time.
“Gerard is basically a continuation of the organ tradition. Playing with him is like getting together with family. He is an individual that is always looking for new things in the music,” says saxophonist James Carter. When Carter assembled his organ trio, Gibbs was the organist he wanted.
“Music is what I am. This is why I left the city of Detroit job. I loved architecture. It is an interesting field. But that wasn’t where my heart was. Music is my first love.”
For a while, demand for his talents dwindled. Gibbs became worried, but not discouraged. He keeps a level head: “One of the things that I promised myself is I didn’t want to be one of those musicians that if something happened that others would have to organize a fundraiser to pay my medical bills.
“The other promise that I made to myself was that I would do everything to create opportunities for myself,” he continues. “So I went crazy sending out press kits. I was sending them to this club and that corporation. I promised myself that I wasn’t going to sit around the house waiting for the telephone to ring.”
Moreover, Gibbs got flak about the trio’s name. He liked the wordplay in ORGANized Crime, yet some actually believed he was involved with the Mafia.
“For the most part, it was a situation where some of my close friends and my family came to me, although they understood that I was just having fun with the name. I could see their point of view that whenever black people entitled themselves it was always with something negative. It always has something to do with guns. It always has something to do with violence. And so I really gave that some close thought.”
So Gibbs combined his trio and the electric quartet (RYZ) under one moniker: ReOrgan’YZ. Now he can satisfy a multitude of musical appetites with a single show.
“What I decided to do was present a situation where the group could give people a little bit of everything,” explains Gibbs. “We could give folks some traditional funky organ trio stuff. Then we can give the other people some contemporary stuff.”
Gibbs and his band are busier than ever, gigging Thursdays at Flood’s, and monthly at Baker’s. A new CD, Livin’ and Learnin’, is slated for release this month. As a sideman, Gibbs is planning tours with saxophonists Ronnie Laws, James Carter and Marion Meadows.
“Right now I want to take advantage of my youth while I still have it. I plan to pull my B3 around until I can’t do it anymore,” he says.
Gerard Gibbs and ReOrgan’YZ perform with Keiko Matsui on Friday, July 16, at the Birmingham JazzFest (Shain Park in downtown Birmingham). Admission is free; show time is 6:30 p.m. The festival runs July 15 through July 17; for a full schedule call 248-433-FEST or go to wvmv.com.Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]