Chicago City Legends:
Chris Foreman, the Green Mill, and the Hammond B3

Nick Fox

The Green Mill takes you back. It takes everybody back. Standing proud and bright on a corner of Broadway and Lawrence in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, within shouting distance of the red line trains that go thundering by, it has the look, just from the outside, of a place designed to transport its patrons out of the city, out of the day, and out of time.

On Fridays and Sundays those who wander into the dark space of the Mill, by chance or by choice, can tune in to a too-rarely-heard sound out from the unlikeliest of set-ups. Because the Green Mill, in addition to having a prominent stage at the rear of the room, remains one of the few bars in Chicago to have a stage that actually sits behind the bar. And on that stage sits a Hammond B3 organ — a relic of Chicago’s past, a whirling Rube Goldberg machine with an impossible-to-replicate, instantly recognizable sound. And at the keys is a short, powerfully built man with an encyclopedic memory a technique that leaves some of the most accomplished musicians in Chicago in awe.

His name is Chris Foreman, and it seems like he was born to play here.

It’s Friday evening, and Chris Foreman sits on a stool at the Green Mill, having just finished his regular 5-8 show and taken the time to speak with some of the fans who admire his playing, including an aspiring Hammond B3 player from Australia.

“At one time I did think of being a DJ,” says Foreman. “Because of the way they talk to the people and intermingle with them. And being a professional musician is sort of the same thing. People come in for the five o’clock show and they want to unwind. And they look up (behind the bar) and see an instrument and say, ‘Wow, what’s this?’ And by them talking, that sort of helps me plan my show.”

That conversation with the audience speaks to the intimacy the Green Mill has as a room. Customers often talk during sets, but rarely get too out of hand. Having stood as an Uptown institution since 1907 (though it did move a few doors down from its original location) the place gets respect. Maybe it’s the low light. Maybe it’s the general air of serious work being done by the musicians. Maybe it’s the bartenders and the owner, who keep the patrons in check.

“The room just sounds really good,” says guitarist Joel Paterson, who plays with Foreman every Sunday night from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. “I think people really respect (the Green Mill). They’ll be quieter and respect the music more. One of the bartenders when it’s too loud will go up to someone and say, ‘Is the band bothering you?’”

“It’s intimate,” says Foreman. “I can read the room. I can tell who wants to talk. If they’re murmuring I go, ‘I gotta bring it up.’ And if they’re whispering, I sort of compliment that. I don’t want to blast them out.”

The idea of complimenting the noise of the crowd might seem odd at first, but it fits entirely within the framework of Foreman’s career. He’s a virtuoso who never wants to be treated as such, a skilled soloist who makes it his business to compliment others. Even with four decades of professional playing under his belt, not to mention the unwavering respect musicians across a city that pushes its musicians hard, it wasn’t until four years ago that Foreman finally released his first solo album, Now Is the Time. And even on his solo effort, he shares several tracks with musicians he enjoys playing with.

“You have to want to support,” says Foreman about working as a sideman. “You have to be a team player. There’s certain things you have to listen for. If you play in church, you have to compliment the service.”

“He’s faster than anybody I know on picking up on a cue,” says Joel Paterson. “His mind is so amazing. I’m supposedly the bandleader but I feel more like the traffic cop. Really, just trying to keep up with Chris is such an amazing thing … It’s a challenge to live up to his standards.”

To see Chris Foreman at the Green Mill is to see the confluence of three Chicago forces. One is Foreman himself, bringing his decades of experience from countless gigs at countless clubs, some long since defunct. One is the Green Mill, still holding fast and resisting the rising tide of gentrification, a 112 year-old institution that’s stood its ground while many other jazz clubs went by the wayside. And one of them is Foreman’s weapon of choice: the intricate and almost unnecessarily complex Hammond B3 organ.

Hammond organs are Chicago-born machines. Designed by inventor Laurens Hammond in the early 1930’s and first shipped from a Diversey Street factory in 1935, the Hammond organ was intended to replicate the sound of a pipe organ. As a result, the newfangled machines quickly became popular in churches. The sound, which relies on ninety-one tonewheels — essentially mini-alternators inside of the organ — and a rotating speaker system within the instrument’s housing, is augmented by the player, who can pull from a series of drawbars to change the volume in a particular register, while making use of the twenty-five foot pedals for bass notes and two keyboards with sixty-one keys each.

To play a Hammond B3 requires a player to be a seemingly impossible combination of musician, engineer, and acrobat. It’s not an instrument. It’s a spaceship. And for some players, it’s the perfect vehicle for what they want to do.

“I think I was five,” says Foreman when I ask him about the first time he heard a Hammond B3. The artist he heard was the legendary Jimmy Smith. Soon after, Foreman’s mother bought him a chord organ.

“I told my mother and my father, ‘I want one like Jimmy Smith has.’ Which was like saying I want a bike like Billy has. I said, ‘take it back, I want one like Jimmy Smith.’”

Fats Waller first proved the viability of the Hammond organ in jazz with “Jitterbug Waltz,” and Wild Bill Davis made the B3 visible to a rising crop of jazz musicians. But for Hammond B3 players, all roads lead back to Jimmy Smith. Smith completely changed the way jazz organ was approached, bringing a new sound that came out of Philadelphia, slick and powerful, drenched in gospel and blues. The Philadelphia scene gave the world such legendary organ players as Smith, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Shirley Scott, Charles Earland, and the man Foreman cites as his biggest influence, his friend and mentor, Jimmy McGriff.

When McGriff passed away in 2008, Foreman immediately called McGriff’s mother.

“When I first heard of his passing from Don Williams (McGriff’s drummer), I called Jimmy McGriff’s mother in Philadelphia. And I said, ‘I’m sorry for the loss of your son. Is there anything I can do to help?’ And she said, ‘All I ask you to do is to help keep his music alive.’”

“That’s what we’ve been doing. Keeping the organ tradition alive.”

To keep that tradition alive requires a great deal of fortitude. The original Hammond factory, like a lot of the old jazz clubs that used to house them, has closed down. Finding engineers to repair them is more complicated than finding a piano tuner. It’s a specialized machine, and parts can sometimes be hard to locate. In a way, the instrument’s impossible to replicate design is also the biggest threat to its future.

“Chris talks about the days when there were a lot of Hammond organs around,” says Joel Paterson. “The Mill is such an opportunity for him to do his thing. You see Chris and realize that you’re seeing an important part of history.”

“I’m not as strong as I once was,” says Foreman. “I’m retraining myself.”

It’s the first statement he makes that blindsides me. Foreman is as respected a musician as you can find in the Chicago scene. Yet when he assesses his own talents, he reveals himself to be an artist still excited by the act of learning.

“I’m taking lessons,” he says. “My family and friends think I don’t need them, but I do to improve my technique. Sometimes the cats in the band will notice that, before I leave the house, I go over some Beethoven or some Mozart just to make sure that my groove is happening when I go on stage with these guys. They have a right to ask questions about it, but you don’t want to give them that right. You want to make sure that your stuff is on.”

And there it is again, that nod back to complimenting others, to being a team player. The desire to keep pushing himself so that he can provide something to the musicians around him and the audience in front of him. Recently, Foreman has found himself in the position of mentoring younger organ players, who pull from his encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire of musicians he looked up to when he was first coming up, a role reversal that Foreman calls “kind of weird.”

“It’s a different experience. One minute I’m hearing these guys (Smith, McGriff), going to their engagements … and the next minute you’re doing for others what they did for you. You think, ‘Wow, this is what I’m doing.’”

You can still hear what Chris is doing across the city, from the St. James AME Church on 93rd, where he’s played at Sunday morning services for forty-three years, to Andy’s Jazz Club in the Loop, where he gigs on Saturday nights with another longtime collaborator, drummer Greg Rockingham, and the Soul Message Band.

But there’s no place where you get a better sense of what Foreman, and the Chicago scene is about, than his gigs at the Green Mill. Playing an instrument of the city, in a club that’s watched over a neighborhood for over a century. And for all the applause that comes his way, and all the compliments on his style, Foreman retains a Chicago workingman’s attitude to his craft, assessing his own abilities with a statement as humble as it is optimistic.

“As far as my sound, I’m still looking for it,” he says. “I ain’t found it yet.”


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