(Ed's note: Due to overwork and anomie, we totally slept on this excellent piece by Ronnie Reese of Wax Poetics, talking to Berkeley, CA's Wil Blades, who's new album just came out, and who had a show at the Boom Boom Room last weekend. Sorry bout that, Wil. Hope it turned out ok.)
Boom Boom Room Breaks In the Blades on B-3
By Ronnie Reese
Wil Blades is almost completely self-taught on the Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument that hasn’t seen its heyday in nearly 30 years. Much of his learning has come by way of listening to music from that era – jazz giants such as the Jimmy Smith, as well as the rock stylings of the Doors and Carlos Santana – but a great deal of his talent is the result of sheer fear.
Blades, a native Chicagoan who moved to San Francisco at 18, had been playing drums and guitar for a number of years when he was asked to sit in on the Hammond for a Saturday afternoon happy hour at John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room.
“I figured the instrument out by literally having to embarrass myself,” he recalls, eventually becoming a regular performer at the club a few nights a week. “You’d be surprised how quickly that makes you get on top of something – when you have to do it in front of people and there’s something at stake.”
And there was even more at stake for the precocious multi-instrumentalist, who was underage at the time and would play the Boom Boom Room illegally for the next two years. But Blades was also majoring in Jazz Studies under renowned bassist Herbie Lewis at the New College of California, whom he cites as a major influence on his playing, along with trumpeter Oscar Myers and Hammond legend, Dr. Lonnie Smith.
“Some cats are protective with their information, but he’s always been very generous and giving,” Blades says of the good doctor Smith, who isn’t really a doctor at all, but would offer the young lion choice examinations of his mind’s inner workings regarding the beastly B-3. “After shows, when people were crowding around him, he would pull me aside and let me pick his brain.”
It is support like this which Blades, now 27, has received for much of his life, starting with his artist and journalist parents, who purchased his first real drum set when he was nine and weren’t at all fazed by the ruckus their heavy-handed prodigy raised during practice. And the support continues from world-class artists such as Idris Muhammad, a contributor to Sketchy, Blades’ 2007 debut on Pete Fallico’s Doodlin’ Records.
Earlier this year, Blades was named a “rising star” on the organ by Down Beat magazine, and has vowed to carry on the tradition started by the decades and legions of Hammond B-3 greats before him, while also working to refine a “more personal and modern” approach.
“I’ve never regretted choosing this instrument,” he writes in an unofficial bio. “It has such a beautiful sound that makes me feel good just thinking about it.”