By Jack Spencer
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By Rob van Alstyne
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Billy Holloman pulls the mic down to his face. "We're gonna take a brief pause for the cause. This is B-3 Organ Nite." Sweat dripping from under his baseball hat, he looks around the dark room to see who came down, as does drummer and Artists' Quarter owner Kenny Horst. Is there anyone in the house who can help out on trumpet? Sax? Guitar? Not that it's an open jam session. Nor is it a free-form jazz experiment. But B-3 Organ Nite isn't a rehearsed affair, either. It's an evening of standards called out and performed by Billy Holloman (age 51) and his cast of regular side players.
At its center stands a red Hammond organ. She lives there 24-7, too heavy to move on a regular basis, a big piece of furniture as much as an instrument. Under Holloman's coaxing, she can become a chanteuse. When the stage fills with musicians, she becomes a steady guiding force. And sometimes--usually during the first set, when only Holloman and Horst are jamming--she's a sassy thing, way too proud to keep her mouth shut. Right foot on the volume pedal, Holloman turns her loose, his left foot prancing on the floor keys, filling out the bass. His head snaps back before he breaks it down, allowing Horst to run solo, hitting his rimshots before returning to the ride. Telepathic communication comes easy between these two men; they've been playing together, off and on, for 30-odd years. "When we're playing, I can almost feel what he's getting ready to do," Holloman says. "He can almost feel what I'm getting ready to do. That's how tight we are."
Chance enters the mix when Holloman's friends step on stage. Depending on the vibe, he'll either pick the songs or let the mood and music move them. As a professional, he knows when it's time to let loose or, in his words, "get out what I got to get out." Yet he also knows how to lay back when someone special like former Twin Citian Ira Sullivan decides to bring his trumpet down and join Holloman for a musical conversation.
"Ira Sullivan, he's played with all the greats: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman," Holloman says. "When there's someone like Ira Sullivan in the house, I won't crowd him. He's Ira Sullivan, and I ain't got nothin' to prove 'cause he's the man. On nights like that, I just hold the groove, and make sure everybody's getting their own groove on. There will be other nights when I can act the fool--but I never know when that's gonna happen."
Thanks to his brother-in-law, Bobby Lyle, a famous local organist who played with, well, everybody, including Sly and the Family Stone, Holloman became enamored with the Hammond, and met Horst, a former drummer for Lyle. "I began on the trumpet when I went to St. Paul Central," Holloman says. "Then I went to MacPhail, and I got kicked out of there because I spent all my time going to the Blue Note, a club that closed in the '70s," Holloman says. "They would be jammin' down there in the afternoon. I wasn't old enough, but they would let me come and sit on the radiator if I didn't bother anybody."
Holloman never married, so as not to be distracted from his true calling, and he still works at his craft, practicing over three hours a day. Making a living as a musician hasn't been easy, and Holloman admits that sometimes he's only there to get the money and go home. "But sometimes," he says, "if everything is right, my creativity will come out, my fingers will actually go where I want them to and it will click. That don't happen all the time."
But when it does, his eyes roll back and his head clocks along with the meter. Shoulders stooped, he grinds into the keyboard, feeling the power of the organ underneath him, "like riding a Harley-Davidson," he says. It's a feeling he's craved ever since he bought his first organ back in his 20s. "My first Hammond was taken from me," Holloman says. "I was behind on my child support, and they arrested me in Omaha. They took me to jail, and to get me out, they sold the organ. Bang. It was gone. It got me out of jail, but I didn't know if I was better off."
Later in the evening, the stage becomes thick with musicians. An elder statesman quietly booms on a bass sax, while a rooster of a sax player, wearing a beret, gets way too busy during a long solo. Holloman reigns in the Hammond--prettying her up and quieting her down--wearing her beauty on his sleeve like a trophy girlfriend. She can take it. And, like Holloman said, he's got nothing to prove.
B-3 Organ Nite featuring Billy Holloman and Friends is a free, weekly event on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. at the Artists' Quarter (366 Jackson St., St. Paul); the first Tuesday of the month is also a free "Ethnic Food" night. For more info, call 292-1359.