Greg Lewis aka Organ Monk is the product of an intense passion for jazz music with a mighty influence from the great Thelonious Monk. But more than anything else, Lewis represents a unique style of artist that has a laser-sighted focus on their niche. By working to master the organ, Lewis has propelled himself into a position that allows him to speak to audiences through his music. Read on as he takes us down the road he chose and where he looks to be going.
Let’s just start from the beginning. For those that don’t know you, who is Greg Lewis?
Greg Lewis is Organ Monk.
At the moment, who am I? Greg Lewis is a musician who is doing a tribute to Thelonious Monk’s music, because that’s the music that inspired me to play jazz from the beginning. The last two albums I’ve put out titled, Organ Monk, have been receiving critical acclaim. Basically, I’m interpreting his music in the way that I hear it.
Even listening to your music, you can hear that Thelonious Monk was a pretty big influence on your career. What really got you into Monk?
I’ve been hearing it, as my mother says, since I was in the womb. My father was a musician and Monk was one of his favorite pianists. I always remember hearing Monk and Bud Powell and some ‘Trane as a kid. For some reason, I liked dancing around to Monk more than anyone else’s music [laughs].
You talk about Monk and Powell, some of the most important jazz pianists to ever come out. Why did you choose to organ over the piano?
I was studying with Gilly Coggins at the New School and he had me sub a gig for him. I didn’t know it until I got there, but I was supposed to play the organ. He was like, “Greg, go sub for me.” I was like, “Ok! [laughs].” So when I went there, I sort of fell on my face. My left hand wasn’t together and I didn’t know anything about the feet. I knew that you were supposed to play with your feet, but you can’t just do that on your own. So, I sort of dived into it. And then when I started checking out all of the masters—Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, Charles Earland, Jack McDuff, even into rock people like Chester Thompson—it kind of grabbed me and all of a sudden I started getting more calls for the organ. It just kind of kicked in.
The piano has had such a significant role in jazz. What would you say to people to introduce them to the organ? What is its importance?
To me the importance of the organ is the sound. It’s such an incredible sounding instrument. Laurens Hammond, who made the Hammond, was trying to imitate a pipe organ. But I’m glad that he didn’t get it perfect. The air going through the pipes takes time for the bass to connect and makes it sound too choppy. That doesn’t quite work when you’re playing “Giant Steps” on the pipe organ [laughs]. So, with the electric organ, the bass is quicker and it’s more conducive to the kind of stuff the forefathers were doing with jazz music. The most important thing about music is what it sounds like. That’s my opinion. If you have a great technique and no sound, it’s almost useless.
Reviewing your albums, the cover of “Monk’s Mood” really stands out. The original is obviously a classic record that many people have touched. How do you approach something like that?
First of all, I pick tunes that I like. And if I like a tune, I try and play it with my group. It’s like playing something over and over again, and then, eventually you hear things, or you try different things. My approach really it to just play it over and over until something jumps out at me. And that’s what I’ve done and that’s what I will continue to do. I play it until I find something that hasn’t been said or hasn’t been approached yet.
You talk about work with your group. What do you enjoy more—recording or playing live?
I can’t really say. I love playing in front of people. That’s at the top of the list. There’s no greater high than being in front of a people who are actually listening to you, whether they like you are not. Just the fact that they are listening to you, there’s something that’s really great about that. I think because we’re connecting spiritually and their energy, whether it be good or negative, it helps stimulate my energy. But, I love writing. Now that I’m recording under my own name, I’ve found a newfound love for it. There’s so many things that I want to record. “Organ Monk” is my nickname. And Organ Monk may play Bruce Springsteen’s music next. Who knows? The sky’s the limit. I’ve found a newfound love and appreciation for being in the studio, putting something down that will hopefully last as long as this civilization is around.
During our conversation, you’ve mentioned many different types of artists. What do you listen to outside of jazz?
Everything. I’m a product of the hip-hop generation. I grew up doing the human beatbox along with studying the piano. So, I love Kool Moe Dee and Grand Master Flash, all the way up to Lil’ Wayne. And then, of course, I loved Prince. I loved Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones. We use to run around dancing to “Beat It” [laughs]. I just like a little bit of everything. I was even a fan of Van Halen. [The Red Hot Chili Peppers’] “Get Up and Jump” was one of the first songs out of the rock era that I was trying to play. I love doing it all. I love all music. Of course, I love classical music too, being a Bach fan. I studied some Bach in college. Every now and again, I pull it out, just to look at it. Put it this way, if I wanted a million dollars, I would just go over to Europe and study Bach the correct way [laughs]. I can’t say there’s any form of music that I don’t like. There may be songs that I don’t like. But pretty much in all forms of music, I can always find something in there that sounds pretty slick.
Being from that younger generation, might we ever hear something with that hip-hop influence?
I would love to actually. It’s just right now there are a few more albums that I want to do in this genre. But, of course, that’s something we do. I mean, we’ve played all night, playing grooves, and someone getting up there spitting some lyrics. Eventually, I’d like to put that down. But that’s further down the road. Right now, there’s some more stuff I want to crank out in this idiom. Unless someone can help finance the budget, then I can try and do a couple projects at once. But right now I’m financing everything myself, so I have to do one thing at a time [laughs].
If you could listen only listen to one album for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I think it would probably be Underground by Thelonious Monk. From the picture cover to “Ugly Beauty” and “Thelonious,” it just had everything. That’s just one of those albums where I would listen to the music while looking at the cover.
What should be looking for next from Greg Lewis?
I’m working on the third album for next year. It’s actually going to be called Organ Monk Standard. So please keep an eye for that. As always, support the music.
Words by Paul Pennington