The Incredible Jazz Organist - Dan Fogel

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By the time he was 16, Dan Fogel was playing regularly at the Wonder Gardens.
The Swing King of Marven Gardens

With fond memories of AC's jazz history, organist Dan Fogel releases fantastic new album

by Jeff Schwachter
Reprinted from Atlantic City Weekly with permission.

Unlike most people, Dan Fogel had already found his life's calling by the time he was 10 years old. Routinely sneaking out of the second-floor bedroom window of his parent's colonial house in Margate, Fogel would climb down an old tree and then hop a late-night bus and ride up Ventnor Avenue. His destination? Atlantic City's jazz Mecca on Kentucky Avenue (KY and the Curb), where, in the late 1950s, the night clubs were jumping with world-class talent.

With a schoolmate of his, Fogel began shining shoes in front of the legendary Club Harlem when he was seven. He worked for tips, soaking up the music that blared out from the clubs. Fogel became enamored with the sound of a particular instrument the Hammond B3 organ. It was a sound that he had never heard before, and one that would weave its swelling sound into his life for decades to come.

"The sound is indescribable," says Fogel, now 57 and a resident of the Marven Gardens section of Margate. "Nothing else sounds like the Hammond B3 organ. It's a powerful instrument."

That power, especially in the hands of pioneering jazz organists like Groove Holmes, Larry Young, Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff (all of whom played the Kentucky Avenue clubs such as the Club Harlem and Wonder Gardens during jazz's pivotal experimental period of the late '50s/early '60s) drew the young Fogel from Margate to the north side of town on a weekly basis. He says he knew early on that he wanted to play the jazz organ.

At first, Fogel attempted to make himself look older, but failed. With his hair slicked back and his tiny frame hidden beneath an overcoat, he was allowed to sit down inside and drink soda absorbing and listening to the sights and sounds of the jazz musicians. "The girl at the door just laughed," says Fogel. "She would say, 'Don't even try it, just sit over here and get your Cokes. If I smell anything else on you, you ain't coming in anymore.'"

Thanks to the open-minded club staff, Fogel found himself at the right place at the right time in jazz history. Although the thick, funky, sweet and soulful sound of the B3 would eventually become a popular instrument in not only jazz, but in rock, blues and R&B as well, it was just being developed as a jazz instrument at this time by exciting new players like Smith and McGriff. Fogel got to hear them all.

"I just knew I wanted to be there," he remembers. "Nobody would go with me 10 years old on the north side there were a lot of phobias about being over there. I had no problems with it because I had been shining shoes there since I was seven." Fogel says, despite his friends' disinterest in jazz and going to the clubs, he felt it was the most happening part of town.

Aside from the lure of the jazz clubs, Fogel's early interest in music can also be attributed to his family's roots in show business. His mother, who sensibly made sure Fogel took piano lessons before getting an organ, was a dancer in Atlantic City. His aunt, Helen Fogel Forrest, was a renowned big band-era singer who appeared with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. He also had a second cousin by the name of Jackie Gleason.

After the piano lessons helped strengthen his fingers and taught him the fundamentals of the keyboard, Fogel located a Lowery organ and tried to recreate the sound he had heard in the clubs and on the radio. "I didn't know I needed a Hammond to get that sound," recalls Fogel. "So I hooked the Lowery organ up to every speaker in the house."

Listening to and being in the presence of the club's constant flux of musicians, all of who must have been struck by this young kid's enthusiasm and interest, Fogel figured out that he needed to get an organ made by Hammond to get that sound. When he was 11 years old, his parents OK'd the big purchase, which included the essential Leslie speaker. "I used my shoe-shine money," says Fogel. "I was real serious about it."

By the time he was 16, Fogel was playing regularly at the Wonder Gardens, in a band that included fellow Atlantic City High School classmate and future jazz star Harvey Mason on drums. "I started my freshman year," says Fogel. "We would play behind everyone. We used to go up to Nancy Wilson's dressing room and she'd say, 'If you boys weren't so young I wouldn't let you up here.' She'd be in her gown and everything." (Mason, who went on to play with hundreds of musicians ranging from Erroll Garner and Herbie Hancock to Eric Clapton and Elton John, returns to town at the Trump Marina in June with his band, Fourplay.)

There's a great photograph on Fogel's Web site ( that shows a young Mason and Fogel on the stage of the Wonder Gardens. It's one of many proud shots Fogel has collected over the years, illustrating his life lived in jazz.

Decades after his first excursions into the night clubs of Atlantic City, Fogel's music is still very much alive. It serves as a living link to the city's now defunct but once vibrant jazz scene, as well as to the old school pioneers of the jazz organ who taught him how to play. Fogel's still playing the music he once heard coming from the stage of Club Harlem and he's also respected by musicians near and far as one of the great living jazz Hammond B3 players from the formative era.

Also appearing on his Web site are quotes and comments from jazz luminaries like Max Roach ("Exceptionally gifted, this guy can play!), Pat Martino ("Danny can play his M.F. ass off!") and Joey DeFrancesco ("Danny plays the organ in the tradition of the masters. He can play!") praising his talents.

After years of appearances at various clubs and festivals around the Philly-Jersey Shore region, traveling extensively, taking time off and recording albums on his Laughing Waters label, Fogel has recently found a new fan in renowned jazz critic Nat Hentoff. Just before issuing his fifth (and finest) album, 15 West, earlier this year, Fogel called Hentoff on a whim, figuring the music writer and historian might be able to review it. It turned out Hentoff liked the album so much that he agreed to write the album's liner notes. Fogel was floored. "The phone rings one day and Hentoff's screaming on the phone, 'Wow, man, this is what swinging is all about!'"

For the album, recorded live during three sessions in July 2005 inside the wooden walls of Ventnor's 19th century Methodist Church, Fogel brought in a trio that knew how to groove tenor saxophonist Pete Chavez, guitarist O'Donel Levy and drummer Webb Thomas.

On 15 West's nine tunes you can hear Fogel's deep respect for the style of '60s jazz organ that, as a much younger man, he heard in the clubs. You also hear that he's a master of rhythm and melody. Along with the original title track, a bouncy number with a terrific riff, the quartet rolls through standards like "Out of This World," "A Night in Tunisia," "Willow Weep for Me" and the gorgeous "I Thought About You."

"His is the kind of jazz that lifts my spirits when nothing else will," Hentoff writes in the liner notes, "making me move with it, and sometimes just shout in pleasure."

15 West is a contemporary release that sounds vintage, grooves tremendously and is deeply connected to the great players of the past.

But even though Fogel's musical roots stretch back for decades, the release of 15 West marks an exciting time for Fogel. He's a featured artist on Temple University's WRTI, and "Willow Weep for Me" was No. 5 on the radio station's Jazz Hot 11 countdown during the last week of January and climbing. Fogel says legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins has expressed interest in recording a project and this summer, at the Atlantic City House of Blues, Fogel is slated to open for George Benson, another former student of the KY and the Curb school.

Although what remains of the Kentucky Avenue jazz scene is mostly photographs and memories of those who were there, Fogel believes it could rise again some day, with the right people involved. Meanwhile, 15 West pays homage to the great players of the past while making you wiggle and tap your feet.

"It's a shame that they ripped it all down," says Fogel, referring to the city's legendary clubs, like Club Harlem and the Wonder Gardens, which were torn down years ago. "That was my little home. I've heard talk about the rebuilding of that street again. Some day they're going to."

Traveling when he is not composing, performing or recording, Fogel is also an avid painter. Over the years, he says, taking time off from his music has helped him to become a better musician.

"I took some time off to not play," says Fogel. "So that I could grow. I wanted my playing to get better and I used the theory of opposite solution. If something's not working the way you're doing it, then try it the other way. If it's not working riding forward then try riding backwards. If it's not working playing everyday then stop playing!"

He adds: "My music is myself. I am my music. For my music to change, I have to change. Sometimes, you have to stop playing and live a little."

From the sound of 15 West, it appears that Fogel has lived a lot.

Musical Notes

Recordings: Dan Fogel's recordings, all released on Laughing Waters Records, include Movement de la Mer (1983), Naked Flowers (1986), Something Like That (1990), Oracle (2001), Soul Eyes (2004) and 15 West (2006). Most of these can be purchased at CD Exchange in Northfield or online at or at

Venues: Although times have changed in Atlantic City, especially in terms of places that book live jazz, Fogel's resume includes performances at long-gone establishments like the Jockey Club, the Last Shoe Lounge and the Hideout Jazz Lounge. He has also been featured at the Atlantic City Jazz Festival, the NJ Jazz Festival (at Appel Farm) and the Kentucky Avenue Jazz Festival.

Performed With: Over the years Fogel has teamed up with many a jazz great. The list includes guitarists Pat Martino and Eddie McFadden, saxophonists Cecil Payne and Odean Pope, esteemed drummers Billy James and Sunny Murray and jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley. His most recent album, 15 West, features Webb Thomas on drums, O'Donel Levy on guitar and Pete Chavez on tenor saxophone.

Favorite Memory: For a guy who, as a kid, was lucky enough to hang out and play with jazz greats like Jimmy Smith and Nancy Wilson, it's tough to pick out a favorite memory of the old Atlantic City club days. When pressed, Fogel recalls a night at Club Harlem where headlining organ player Jimmy McGriff asked the 15-year-old Fogel to sit in for him for a few moments while he stepped out. "I played one set, then the second set, then the third set," remembers Fogel. McGriff never came back. "All the people were coming from Margate to hear Jimmy McGriff play and instead they saw me playing."