Even if I hadn’t moved to Cleveland in 2019 I am probably a bit too young to have visited the many jazz venues that once thrived in the city’s so-called second downtown on Euclid Avenue. On any Saturday night 60 years ago, the district would have been alive with working-class revelers going out to a club for a few beers, and an unpretentious good time. The soundtrack for this custom often involved a small combo (quaint word, that!) of Hammond B-3 organ, guitar and drums that offered bluesy music with a big beat. Capable of shaking the room at a volume level that could rival a big band’s, the B-3 can also issue bedroom confidences in a whisper that could hush a crowded room. No wonder an archipelago of organ trio bars sprang up from Newark and Philadelphia on the eastern seaboard to the industrial Midwest.
Those places are gone now, but the organ trio hangs on as a vital formation in creative music in the Black American tradition, and one of the best is about to roll into town to rock the Bop Stop tomorrow night.
It’s Chicago’s Soul Message Band, and when I tell you that the good-time vibe they create is barely changed from what you might have heard in a Detroit organ bar in, say, 1964, that’s a feature, not a bug.
Organist Chris Foreman and drummer Greg Rockingham have a history of collaboration with the Deep Blue Organ Trio that stretches back 25 years. They’re a little too young to have played in the circuit’s heyday, but you wouldn’t know it from their conversational rapport and flawless command of the genre’s tried-and trues: swing, the blues and an unapologetic desire to entertain. With guitarist Lee Rothenberg, the SMB has released two recordings that capture the band’s joyous energy. A third, “People,” featuring Chicago vocalist Hinda Hoffman, is slated for release February 11.
The Bop Stop engagement comes almost two years to the day since the band’s last visit to the club, mere weeks before the pandemic lockdown. From the moment Rockingham counted off Grant Green’s “Matador,” the show was as soulful and satisfying as one could hope for. Even when the rod connecting the volume pedal to the Bop Stop’s B-3 came loose, Foreman, Rockingham and Rothenberg kept right on.
Or that’s how it seemed, at least. At one point in the show, Rockingham stopped the music to apologize for the way that a chronic condition was affecting his playing that night. He needn’t have done so; he might have been the only one in the room that could have detected the any difficulty. Still, the affable and unpretentious Rockingham felt an obligation to is audience and made one of the most honest stage announcements you are ever likely to hear. One of the bravest, too.
Musicians like this–people like this–deserve our support, in person or online. In return, you’ll receive an evening of good-time music that will lift you up and, as drummer Art Blakey said, “wash away the dust of daily life.” That’s too good a deal to pass up.
Soul Message Band, Friday, January 28 at 8 p.m. at Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. In-person are $20, available here. The concert will will be livestreamed at Bop Stop’s Facebook page. Viewing the stream is free but donations to the band and the venue are appreciated and can be made here.