Barbara Dennerlein: A Study in Contrasts
AAJ: It is kind of strange, you don't sound like Jimmy, and your technique is quite different, yet you still get the well-meaning compliment, "You sound just like Jimmy Smith!" You and Rhoda Scott are friends, do you know if she gets that comment too?
BD: I've never asked her, but I think yes. You know, the situation has improved over the years, especially compared to when I started playing in my young years, the reason is because back then the Hammond organ wasn't well known, so for most people, if they knew something about Hammond organ, chances are they knew something about Jimmy Smith, it's the only name they connect with the Hammond organ. So automatically if they hear you play Hammond organ, they hear that sound and it doesn't have to do with a particular style Jimmy Smith played, but they make the connection when they hear the sound and say, "Ah, you sound just like Jimmy Smith."
There's a story about how I met Rhoda Scott. People would come to me and tell me about other organ players and say, "You sound just like..." or, "You play exactly like..." and one day someone came and said, "You play exactly like Rhoda Scott," then he asked if I modeled my playing after her, and I told him I'm sorry I don't know Rhoda Scott, and then I bought a record by Rhoda to hear how she sounds.
And many years later I played in France, in Paris, at the Lionel Hampton Jazz Club in the Meridian Hotel for ten days. And one evening Rhoda came, I didn't know her yet personally, so I was very happy she came, because you know for me she's one of the legendary names from the soul jazz tradition. I was excited and afterwards I went to her table and said hello and told her it was great that she was there. She was so kind, she said, "You know, I listened to your blues and I had tears in my eyes." She said that to me, and that was such a great compliment from her. Yeah, I've never forgotten that.
AAJ: Now when you two are on stage together you can really tell that you admire and respect each other.
BD: Yeah, that's how it should be you know, she's got her own thing she's doing, and it's different from my kind of playing, but you feel the soul and it's great and it's fun to play with such a person.
AAJ: It's also interesting that when you were a young girl you also got to meet Wild Bill Davis, the guy who really started it all...
BD: Exactly, he was a great man...
AAJ: ...but not only that, he played with Duke Ellington and Count Basie, two of your heroes...
BD: Yeah and he was before Jimmy Smith, he was after Fats Waller, but he was one of the first guys, and his block chord technique is unique. He was playing in Zurich, so a friend and I, an organ player from Austria, decided to go there and listenand he sometimes lent his organ to Wild Bill Davis, so he knew him. And we went there, and he was such a gentleman, a great, great man, really nice and so kind. And he was so pleased by my playing that he invited me to play a set at his gig, and I played instead of Wild Bill Davis! [Laughs] [Note: T.C. Pfeiler recounted to me that she was in such haste to get to Zurich that she grabbed her mother's passport by mistake and they almost didn't get across the border.]
AAJ: And he sat and watched!?
BD: Yeah. Incredible!
AAJ: What kind of feedback did he give you?
BD: Great, he was so pleased, he was so nice, he was a musician who was really happy to see another organ player playing well. There was no jealousy or anything else, he was just happy, he was just great.
AAJ: Did you ask him any questions about Duke Ellington or organ playing?
BD: Oh, it's too long ago, I don't remember what we talked about, I was so young at that time, and it was so exciting for me. We stayed in contact, but we didn't see each other again before he died, and I regret that very much.
AAJ: You know the Frank Sinatra line about New York, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere"when you signed with Verve you recorded in New York and got to invite some of the biggest names in jazz to play on your CD. Being in Manhattan for the first time is a bit surreal even for a tourist. I'm wondering, do you remember the feeling you had on the streets on your way to the studio for the first time, it seems like you would have had to pinch yourself to make sure you weren't dreaming?
BD: [Laughs] Well my first contact with America was actually through Enja records. After Tribute to Charlie (Koala, 1987) I got the attention of Matthias Winckelmann. He called and said I think you are now ready to play with American musicians. And he said, now you can show if you can really make it, or something like that. And then I got in touch with Ray Anderson, Ronny Burrage, and Mitch Watkins and that was my first contact...
AAJ: But they came here...
BD: They came here to Ludwigsburg to Studio Bauer. And we did the recording and it was great. Great musicians, very inspiring, especially Ray Anderson, it was really fantastic. So we did the three albums, and afterward I had a record presentation in New York and a tour of Canada, all before Verve, so this wasn't the first time, I'd already had success in the States. I played at the Blue Note in New York before the presentation of my Enja CD.
Dennerlein shown here with her father's artwork
And I was invited to George Benson's house, we jammed and he played drums and I played organ, and we played billiards together and I won! [laughs] And I have to tell you this. Later he invited us out for dinner at a restaurant and I'll never forget it, he was driving this great American car, and he had his latest production with him, and he put it in the CD player and we hear this orchestra with George Benson playing, and he's sitting right there driving [laughs]wow the impression was great. He was such a gentleman, and so nice, and a wonderful musician anyway. So I already had some stories from the States, and Verve came after all this success.
They gave me this big budget to put my dream team together, and I came to New York really well prepared, and it was great to work in the best studio around, the Power Station, in Studio A, and you could get everything, and I really liked that, and all the great musicians, and they were so into my music and really tried to make it work.
AAJ: You are deeply rooted in Munich and very close to your family, but New York is such an exciting place, especially for a musician. You recorded there three times. Surrounded by your peers, all the clubs, the chance to do studio workthe energy of the citywere you ever tempted to live in New York for a year or two?
BD: Well of course the temptation was there, but it was difficult for me because if you've built yourself up in Europe it's much more difficult to go away. If you have nothing here, it's easy to leave and start again in another place, but I had a lot to lose, I already had a lot of concerts over here, and I would have had to cancel everything and make a brake to go to the States and work there. Here I had a career already, and if you are away, you are away, it's not such an advantage to be away, of course you can say, "I was in America," blah blah blah, but you are away. Also I had my family here and I didn't want to be away from my parents. So that is basically why I didn't do it, of course it would be great, but I would prefer to have my base here, go out and do a tour and come back.