The Incredible Jazz Organist - Dan Fogel

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Dan Fogel

Dan Fogel represents the Grits’n Gravy of Jazz Organ. His story begins in one of the hot-beds for Jazz Organ: Atlantic City, New Jersey…right there on Kentucky Avenue. “I was shining shoes at seven and later when ‘Misty’ came on the radio, I heard Groove Holmes choppin’ away and I went nuts and didn’t stop until I got my first organ. I’d sneak out of the house at ten years old and get on the bus in the middle of the night and go to these now defunct jazz clubs, you know, on Kentucky Avenue, where I’d hear Groove Holmes, Jack McDuff, Gene Ludwig, Jimmy Smith, Don Patterson, Butch Cornell, Doc Bagby… everybody was up there even Gladys Knight and the Pips. Jimmy Smith used to let me sit in – I was sixteen then”. You might say Dan Fogel was in the right place at the right time to watch the Masters of Jazz Organ and learn the fundamentals from them through osmosis. Since Jazz Organ coursework was unheard of in music schools, hanging around on Kentucky Avenue was the perfect campus for a very young but inspired Jazz Organ enthusiast. As a young teenager, Dan was able to shadow his idols and watch the theatrics of this music up close and for real. He heard the sounds as they twirled from the Leslie speakers and felt the groove deep in his body. It was the thumping bass; the comping chords; and the horn-like soloing that ripped through Dan’s soul and steered him clear of his piano lessons and into the wild world of Jazz Organ. “I started out on the piano at ten”, Dan remembers. “I did about a year and four months on the piano and felt I was learning fast. I was supposed to practice my piano lessons but soon I got my first organ and I would sneak down the basement and play it all the time. My piano teacher would come to see if I had done my lessons (which I hadn’t) and during the last three or four months, he put me on probation. He said, ‘If you don’t have your lessons done by the next time, that’s gonna be it’. So, he came and I didn’t have them done…(laughs)…I was about eleven and a half years old….”

Dan was born June 21, 1948 in Atlantic City. “I was born and raised here. My mother was a show girl. I got it in my blood. My cousin is Jackie Gleason. I met him when I was five but I vaguely remember when we went to New York City to see him. He’s my second cousin.” Dan’s aunt was singer, Helen Forrest, a person to whom he has always looked up to. “She was a famous Big Band singer for Artie Shaw and then Benny Goodman” says Dan. “That was my father’s sister. She died when she was about eighty-three about two years ago. She tried to see many of my performances but she just never made it. She was always fifteen, twenty minutes late when she was performing in Atlantic City”.

In school, Dan could tell that his love for music was eclipsing his interest in academics. “I never did good on tests, you know. I felt intruded by anyone asking me any kind of question. I had to perform a certain way and I didn’t like that”. The freedom afforded Dan through music became his primary concern and motivating force. “Maybe that was in the back of my mind. I had such independence while improvising on the keyboard. It teaches you independence at an early age or a form of it. Maybe that’s why I didn’t do good in school?” When others were playing high school sports and working at odd jobs, Dan was playing Jazz Organ in the clubs of Atlantic City. At the age of 13, he debuted as a Jazz Organist in Atlantic City’s Wonder Gardens and two years later in 1962 he was considered a professional by all accounts. From that point on, it was a situation of following the circuit; playing in as many clubs as possible throughout New Jersey and the neighboring states; and preparing for a recording career.

For Dan Fogel, it has always been the vocabulary of Jazz Organ matched with its tradition. He learned the right way from the beginning and still holds to the standards Jimmy Smith and the others modeled for him. “That’s one thing that Jimmy Smith established”, he reminds, “The sound of the idiom that we’re in, musically, on the organ. It has been the clarity and discipline of playing everything properly in time and the notes being connective and yet punctual”. The fact that Jimmy studied classical music and integrated all that he learned into his creation of the Jazz Organ sound, intrigued Dan Fogel. “I went nuts when I heard Jimmy Smith on the radio and I heard Groove Holmes do ‘Misty’ and even Rufus Harley on the bag pipes. I didn’t know that was allowed. At that age, I didn’t know that you were allowed to make sounds like that (laughs)”. The sound of the piano became much less interesting as Dan was hearing new and exciting Jazz Organ registrations. “I never was much interested in the sound of the piano. Being a pianist originally, I was classically trained and I did all the waltzes and practiced all this stuff as a piano student (which) is why I now think it is very important for an organist to practice on the piano and be trained on the piano to get the form". The ‘form’ that Dan speaks of is the knowledge one must have of the keyboard and the skill level with which to express oneself fluently. Dan feels there are many individuals on the scene who have not mastered the fundamentals of the keyboard and therefore it’s harder for them to move onto the manuals of an organ. “They just don’t have that clarity”, he adds. When asked to comment on those organists coming from the church, Dan praises their technique and approach. “They’re wonderful with those chords, those gospel chords, you know, those raised elevenths and the flatted ninths and thirteenths. They have all those modulations that go into each other. It sorta reminds me of Don Patterson and his inversions. Everything was so close, you know, chord to chord… and I know you’ve heard many beautiful church organists play. Their chords are like different colors of paint just running into each other and molding and forming new visions.” As far as Dan’s own style of playing is concerned, it’s safe to say that he comes right out of the same piece of wood the Masters carved into. His position in today's Jazz Organ scene is, however, still confusing to him. “I spoke to my brother about this and I said, ‘I’m kinda confused’. Am I one of the off-springs of the original Jazz Organists or am I one of the originals because even though I was sixteen playing along side of Jimmy McGriff and Smith and even Larry Young when I was thirteen, I don’t really know where I fit”. It wasn’t long ago when Dan Fogel’s organ group would follow that of Don Patterson’s when both were booked at the Wonder Gardens. That’s something few organists today can say. Dan’s style of playing incorporates many of the licks that have been passed down from the Masters as well as a few that he throws in for originality. His manner of playing the Hammond organ and his utilization of the Leslie tone cabinet are attempts to create and display a unique and personal style. “I like to warm the Leslie up. It’s like a good meal. I like to start off with just a nice vibrato and, depending on the tune, move to the next course and the next course after that. On the track ‘Out of This World’, from my latest CD, you’ll hear that it opens up with no vibrato and then after the first chorus, I start the vibrato. I use various techniques at different times for the effect but I never really like to play with the Leslie if I’m soloing intensively, you know. I like doing my famous grinding soloing, like Jimmy Smith used to do a lot. I guess that’s where I got the idea from. Why stop, you know…as long as everything’s groovin’, you know, just swing it. That’s what I was talking about before about all the notes being in place. They really have to be in place to get that groove time going when you’re improvising at that speed. Groove Holmes could do it. He was excellent at that and, of course, Jimmy”.

For Dan, being based in Atlantic City makes little difference to him and his quest for further recognition. “I’ve been playing the organ for 47 years now and my main concern has always been to keep making music. The jobs will come. As the music gets better, the jobs get better”. This, he says, in light of the decreasing interest in Jazz throughout Atlantic City. “I can’t lie, there is no jazz here”, he admits. “Everyone knows about it. They want everyone to stay inside the casinos and there’s no clubs on the street to go to…not with music. There’s no live music on the streets of Atlantic City. I can safely say that”. What about moving away from your home town and trying your skills in another environment? (I ask) “Well, it doesn’t really matter”, he reflects. “I know that George Benson used to live in Maui, for instance, and he’d fly out of there when he’d have his concerts. It really doesn’t matter where you live. If you’re worried about working in a small little pub then Philly has a couple of them. What are you going to do? … play to six or seven people? That’s great, don’t get me wrong, I love that. I like playing just for one person but jazz has changed. It’s gone to the universities and the concert halls. A lot of it is still here. You still have circuitry like the Village Vanguard and the Blue Note, Yoshi’s and Ronnie Scott’s in London. You have that circuit. You always have that. I don’t see a problem, if you’re really good and you have an exciting show. That is what’s really important… not that you move around a lot or make a lot of motions but that your music is exciting and it reaches the people. You may have to scale back on some of the notes to get into that groove – that’s what I did on ‘15 West’, my new CD".

Dan’s discography now includes at least six recordings that are all on Laughing Waters Records: ‘Movement de la Mer’ (1983); ‘Naked Flowers’ (1986); ‘Something Like That’ (1990); ‘Oracle’ (2001); ‘Soul Eyes’ (2004); and ’15 West’ (2006). In each recording, Dan makes a point to surround himself with the finest musicians he can find. He has played with the likes of: Pat Martino, Billy James, Harvey Mason (“Harvey Mason was my drummer years ago. We went to school together and he was supposed to be on this last album but he had a date that day”), Sunny Murray, Cecil Payne, Eddie McFadden, Odean Pope, Tony Ventura, Rufus Harley and Monnette Sudler. Many of these same artists were in the recording studio with Dan. In fact, for ’15 West’, Dan has brought a guitarist who was deeply involved in the Jazz Organ combo scene ‘back in the day’. O’Donel Levy welcomed Dan’s invitation and truly enjoyed every minute back in the organ/guitar marriage. “He used to play with Ellington and he was Jack McDuff’s guitarist for many years”, says Dan. “O’Donel has twenty or twenty-five records on Groove Merchant. I had no idea when we called him in. We were like bread and butter. He said he never thought he would be playing like this again”. Finding the perfect guitar match for an organist can sometimes be a difficult task, as Dan’s suggests: “It was very hard for me to find a guitarist that really swings. This guy O’Donel really has the vintage, the age, the experience, the finesse and the groove”. Dan’s most recent choice for his drummer has also been fortuitous. “Webb Thomas is on the drums. He played with everyone: Joey and Jimmy. He’s great. My bass and his rhythm; we’re just kickin’ it out” For his tenor voice Dan picked Pete Chavez. “It sounds like the sounds are coming out of his vocal chords. He just makes that sax fly”.

For Dan Fogel, Jazz Organ has been a way of life. He is thought to be one of the last real Jazz Organists around who has not strayed from the music he grew up with and learned to play so masterfully. He hears the entire history of this rare genre in his head and he plays it on his Hammond B-3 organ. It’s this recapitulation of an American music form that keeps most of us honest. Thanks Dan!

For more information on Dan or to purchase his music please visit:

Pete Fallico, January 2006

Reprinted with permission from Doodlin' Lounge.
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