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Mike LeDonne: Where There’s Smoke

Bob Kenselaar By

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The moment you want to get to is where all the influences are just kind of flowing, and then it’s you. That’s the thing.
Mike LeDonne has more than made his mark in jazz over the years, on both piano and organ. One of the New York jazz scene's premier instrumentalists, he's long been a favorite of fellow musicians. "He is incredible," said the late Oscar Peterson, who once described how he would rush to hear LeDonne play every night on a jazz-cruise gig that featured both musicians on the bill. First known mainly for his piano work, LeDonne has increased his profile as an organ player considerably, to the point where it may be eclipsing his reputation as a pianist. His hugely popular organ quartet recording, The Groover (Savant, 2010), was the number-one album on the jazz radio charts for 14 weeks in the year it was released. Both The Groover and its 2011 follow-up, Keep the Faith, feature LeDonne's regular band, which has held court virtually every Tuesday night since the year 2000 at Smoke, the New York City jazz club on Broadway near the corner of 106th Street, also known as Duke Ellington Boulevard.

LeDonne is especially happy with his long tenure at the club. "It's an extraordinary thing to have a steady gig like that and then to see people still coming out in droves to listen. And now the word is out all over the world—people know Tuesday night is organ night at Smoke. They come to New York just to see it. They come right off the plane from Europe and go right to Smoke." Not only does the club draw crowds of fans, but great elder statesmen of jazz such as Lou Donaldson, Frank Wess and George Coleman often drop by and sometimes sit in with LeDonne. "I'm so proud of that," he says. "If I can attract people like that, I must be doing something right."

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1956, LeDonne grew up in his parents' music shop; his father, Mickey, was a jazz guitarist who also sang in the style of Nat "King" Cole. After earning his degree at the New England Conservatory, the keyboardist settled in New York City in the late '70s, and he's been based there ever since.

His experience spans an impressively wide range of jazz styles from traditional swing to modern post-bop. Very early in his career, he was a member of the Widespread Depression Orchestra, playing classic charts of the swing era, and before long, he was playing with Benny Goodman. In the early '80s, he was the house pianist at Jimmy Ryan's, a mainstay of New York's traditional jazz scene at the time, and he went on to work with the Art Farmer-Clifford Jordan Quintet in addition to playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Turrentine and Sonny Rollins, among many others. His 11-year stint with Milt Jackson is especially notable—LeDonne ultimately served as the musical director of the vibraphonist's working band—as is his long association with Benny Golson. He appears on the saxophonist's New Time, New 'Tet (Concord, 2009) album and three other Golson CDs. Under his own name, LeDonne has recorded 14 albums with featured personnel including Ron Carter, Joshua Redman and Lewis Nash, in addition to his colleagues at Smoke, together known as The Groover Quartet, comprising Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein, and Joe Farnsworth.

All About Jazz: Your 12-year organ gig at Smoke must set some kind of record.

Mike LeDonne: Smoke is my home in New York. I love Smoke. That's where you hear guys still going for it and playing real jazz music all the time. They allow swing. They allow the blues. They love all of it there, and you can't find that kind of variety in a lot of places these days. Everybody's trying to move the music forward, and so we're getting away from what are the true, deep roots of the music—the blues and the African-American tradition—which, to me, is a sin. I always say it's good to go forward, but we need to go up, too. You go forward, and you can fall off a cliff. You need to bring the music up and stay true to its roots. That is huge in my mind, in my heart and in what I play. I'm going for that feeling at the heart of the music, because I know that feeling from playing with the guys I've played with and from listening to the music all my life. That's what got me into it—the feeling. I didn't know what they were doing. I didn't know what Wynton Kelly was playing. But I knew that feeling was giving me something that I wanted to be able to give someone else.

Smoke is a place where I've been able to develop my organ style for 12 years now. You know, I've been playing organ since I was 14—10, really, but I got a Hammond B3 when I was 14. My father owned a music store. So I've been playing it all this time, but I always kept it in the background. I really didn't want to change my vibe with it by getting out and being all serious with it. I didn't want to get in the arena and be in competition with the other guys out there, but when I played at Smoke, they just threw me in the ring. It was supposed to be a four-week engagement, and it turned into 12 years.

And I don't just do the Tuesday-night organ gig—I do weekends there, too, sometimes, and get involved in the other music they present there. It's all real jazz, and it's the kind of jazz where people walk in and say, "I didn't know this was jazz." They're surprised because it feels so good. They might have been to one of the other big-name clubs around town and felt like they were in church on Sunday. At Smoke, you can really have fun. And you can talk, too. Sometimes it might be a little too much for my taste, but I don't want to take that away. I like people to enjoy themselves. That's what jazz was. I'm sure when Charlie Parker was playing, they didn't go around shushing people. People were quiet because he was just playing so much stuff.


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