‘Like a lion roaring’

MSU jazz orchestras join forces with keyboardist Bobby Floyd


Piano mastery and organ virtuosity are splendid things to witness, but Bobby Floyd only starts there. The distinguished guest artist at Michigan State University Jazz Studies this week, Floyd plugs into the keyboard with his whole body, pushing and pulling at the root, singing from deep inside and wincing at the sting when it’s too sweet to bear.

“It’s about the spirit of the music, the way it makes you feel,” he said.

Floyd is touring state high schools and music programs with MSU’s jazz orchestras all week, sharing plenty of stories and lessons along the way. But for local music lovers, the real magic will come with Friday’s (March 29) concert at the Fairchild Theatre, a rare chance to hear the jazz orchestras join forces with a rocking, cooking Hammond B-3 organ.

“I love that big organ sound,” Floyd said. “It’s so soulful. It’s almost like an animal, like a lion roaring, if you play it the right way.”

Although Floyd still considers the piano his main instrument, he relishes the jet-cockpit-level challenges of working pedals, drawbars, push tabs and all the other bells and whistles that come with organ mastery.

He has a juicy banquet of arrangements for the students to dig into this week, including two rarely heard treats from the book of master composer and arranger Gerald Wilson: the insinuating waltz “Blues for Yna Yna” and the classic organ cooker “You Better Believe It.” Both tunes were immortalized in early 1960s recordings by Wilson’s stellar big band and organist Richard “Groove” Holmes.

Floyd’s technical mastery of jazz, gospel, blues and funk is truly scary, but he’s more concerned with what he calls “the feel.”

“So many young people are great musicians, and that’s great, but I think we’re starting to lose some of that true bluesy feeling,” he said.

In his view, “the feel” is what connects with audiences, not flash and virtuosity.

“So many people, especially if they aren’t familiar with jazz, you mention the word ‘jazz,’ and they just don’t want to listen to it,” he said. “We’re starting to get too technical and mechanical with it and not focusing on the way it’s supposed to make you feel.”

Floyd was born in Marion, Ohio, and now lives in Powell, near Columbus. He started playing piano at age 2 and learned that he had perfect pitch by age 5, but he got “the feel” from his mother.

“My mom played simple triads, easy chords, but she was good enough to play church services and obviously good enough to get me started,” he said. “I kind of took it from there as I grew up.”

That casual last sentence summarizes countless hours of daily lessons and practice, encouraged by his parents.

“My mom and dad, they knew I had a gift,” he said.

Floyd was playing in church by age 7. He longed to play organ as well as piano, but he had to wait until he was 10 and his feet could reach the pedals.

“Some of the greatest jazz musicians, singers, blues musicians got started playing in church, and they got that feeling by letting the spirit lead them,” he said.

He kept studying and playing through high school and college, even though acoustic jazz wasn’t exactly in its heyday. Big ears and versatility helped him land a variety of gigs.

In 1984, Floyd joined Ray Charles for a tour that lasted about a year and a half.

“He was really tough. He was a perfectionist,” Floyd said.

Each night, Floyd would play a few tunes on piano before Charles took the stage, then move to the organ seat when the main show began.

“He had great ears and could hear anything,” Floyd said. “But we hit it off. I had that feel, and that related to what he was all about. We were like two peas in a pod. He liked everything I played, and we had no problems at all.”

Floyd also played for six years with the Count Basie Orchestra. He sat at Basie’s revered piano stool for the Grammy-nominated album “All About That Basie.” He still plays with the Basie outfit now and then, and he recently got the call to join them for a summer concert at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

Floyd encourages students to welcome all gigs, large and small. He enjoys performing with top U.S. orchestras like the Boston Pops and the Detroit Symphony, but he also loves playing the Columbus-area circuit with his own trio, featuring Reggie Jackson on drums and Derek DiCenzo on guitar and bass.

Floyd is also the featured pianist and organist with the Columbus Jazz Orchestra and frequently tours with its director, trumpeter Byron Stripling. In a long-running joke that sometimes seems to cut a bit close to the bone, Stripling complains that people come to their shows only to see Floyd.

Despite his obvious discipline at the keyboard, Floyd is no jazz purist. His eclectic playing style affirms his reverence for piano greats like Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk and Oscar Peterson, but his ears stretch much further. He nurtures an undying love for the soulful, expansive “horn bands” of the ‘70s, like Graham Central Station, Tower of Power, Kool & the Gang and Chicago.

“They all influenced the way I play. I used to take bass lines and horn lines from Earth, Wind & Fire and all those groups and play those lines in church,” he said. “I still feel that when I play today.”

For Floyd, it all comes down to a musician’s individual approach and sound.

“We try to put it into categories, like jazz or blues or country, but even working with Ray Charles — he did a lot of country music, in his own way, but it was kind of like he was singing in church.”

MSU jazz orchestras with Bobby Floyd, guest organist

Friday, March 29

8 p.m.

Fairchild Theatre

542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing


(517) 353-5340



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