There is no surer sign of dedication to one’s craft than lugging a 350-pound instrument to your own gig. For up-and-coming jazz musician Wil Blades, pushing his desk-like Hammond B3 organ around town is a given — there are only a handful of venues in the city that carry his instrument of choice.
From jazz to funk, ghetto-tech to blues and bebop, Blades crosses genres and blends contemporary influences with what appears to be a dinosaur of an instrument. Providing a funky groove and big-band sound to jazz, blues, rock and gospel music as a standard keyboard instrument in the 1960s and 70s, the Hammond B3 was originally invented in the 30s to emulate a pipe organ. Instead it gave birth to one of the first synthesizers.
When Blades first heard the organ he was 15 and living in Chicago. He felt an instant connection. A few years later Blades, now 30, ended up in the Bay Area playing with music greats Johnny Lee Hooker and the legendary jazz musician Dr. Lonnie Smith, who became one of his mentors.
After wowing audiences at his first solo gig at the Red Poppy Art House on Feb. 12, Blades sat down with Mission Loc@l to talk music.
ML: Who are your greatest influences?
WB: To this day, everything that anyone does on the Hammond is because of Jimmie Smith. It’s really hard not to get out of that umbrella — I have taken on a lot from him. (Smith) created the language, the whole style. I adopted the sound he uses on the organ — it’s hard to not have his style in your playing for how dominant his influence is. I take his influence and expand on it with my own influences by listening to things that are around today, like gospel, hip-hop, and indie rock. It’s all about bridging what he did back then with what’s going on today.
ML: How would you describe your own sound?
WB: Rythmic — I played the drums first so I tend to think of rhythm first. And it’s bluesy.
ML: How did you first become involved with music?
WB: My musical history started when I picked up the drums at age 8. I played in school bands all throughout middle and high school, and at age 13 I picked up the guitar. When I came across the organ, I put the two things together. The organ involves a lot of coordination — I still feel like I’m learning. I’m literally practicing right now.
ML: The Hammond B3 is not exactly an easy instrument to play — how long did it take you to pick it up?
WB: I’ve been playing for 11 years now, but in the beginning it took about a year or two of embarrassing myself infront of people. Gigs forced me to pick it up a lot quicker. But when you love something and you really want to do it, you’ll push yourself.
ML: How do you get such a huge instrument around town?
WB: I transport it in a van. It has wheels so it’s good—unless I want to go up stairs.
ML: How does the music scene in Chicago compare to San Francisco?
WB: When I lived in Chicago I wasn’t too involved in the music scene there. But there are definitely some great venues, like the Green Mill. It has after-hour shows that run to 4 or 5 in the morning—there’s no place like it.
ML: How has San Francisco influenced your sound?
WB: I was influenced by the Mission District because I attended the New College of California on Valencia — they closed about a year ago. I was there everyday, studying, practicing…it was my partial musical home.
ML: How did you link up with the legendary Dr. Lonnie Smith?
WB: I hooked up with him by bugging him at shows about ten years ago. I was addicted to the soulfulness of his music and his mesmerizing presence on stage. I kept showing up to his gigs at Yoshi’s and one day he let me in the backdoor. Once he saw that I was real serious, he sat me down a couple of times and gave me lessons. Musically, he was a great influence—other musicians would tell me that I sound like him. That’s the one thing that separates the older generation from the younger ones: the older organists understood that they had to find their own voice, while the younger ones tried to emulate them.
ML: What projects are you currently working on?
WB: My projects have a pretty different range — I’m in a band called O.G.D, which is a typical blues band with a certain amount of improv, but it’s definitely on the safer end. Then I have a duo with Scott Amondela on the drums, called Amondela vs. Blades, and I teach at the Berkely Jazz School. I also recently released my first CD, “Sketchy.” Hopefully I’ll be back in the studio at the end of this year.