by W. Kim Heron
He was a house-rocker on the Hammond B3 organ, and when you heard that he was inspired by Little Richard and Chuck Berry before he encountered the giants of jazz, particularly the revolutionary organist Jimmy Smith ... well, it all made sense. Out of influences including the aforementioned, he became a singular voice and presence on the Detroit scene. His '70s and '80s sets at the Cass Corridor spot Cobb's Corner became legendary. "Don't Stop the Groove" was more than a song title for him: it was a credo.
Lyman Woodard passed away Tuesday evening at Owosso Memorial Hospital, the same hospital where he was born on March 3, 1942. Compared to the many jazz musicians from middle-class and even hardscrabble backgrounds, Woodard came from a well-off family (the wrought iron furniture business). He studied piano at the Oscar Peterson School of Contemporary Music in Toronto before hearing jazz organ pioneer Jimmy Smith in 1963 inspired him to switch instruments.
By 1965, he was in Detroit and formed his first trio with guitarist Dennis Coffey and drummer Mel Davis.
Later, he worked regularly in the Motown organization, including a stint at musical director for Martha & the Vandellas. He re-formed his trio in the '70s — with Ron English on guitar and Leonard King on drums — and later expanded that into the Lyman Woodard Organization with the addition of alto saxophonist Norma Jean Bell and percussionist Lorenzo Brown. Through the years, numerous musicians were involved in the organization to some extent or another, on the stage and on disc, including saxophonist Kenny Garrett, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, guitarist Robert Lowe and drummer Renell Gonsalves. The vinyl discs of the band from that era have become collectors' items, sometimes fetching hundreds of dollars.
Jim Dulzo, a writer, editor and for many years at the artistic helm of the then-Montreux Detroit International Jazz Festival, wrote in an e-mail:
Lyman believed deeply in great jazz and great dance music — back in the ‘70s he called it "jazz with a disco beat," which hardly did him justice. So many nights dancing the blues away with his band, so many great younger players he brought up through his ranks, and so much welcome disdain for the "jazz fundamentalists," as he liked to call them. Lyman believed deeply in having a good time, and his music always guaranteed that. And, by the way, he was one hell of a Hammond organist, and a total professional on the business end. I always felt better after hearing, dancing to, or doing business with the guy, and I'll really, really miss him.
Violinist Regina Carter, one of the stars to come out of the Woodard Organization, phoned us Thursday to share her memories.
She recalled hanging out at Cobb's with her vocalist friend Carla Cook while in college, then progressing from sitting in with Woodard to playing during summer breaks to becoming a full-fledged member. That was when Cobb's, at a corner on Cass a few doors down from the current Avalon Bakery, was one of the happening spots in the city. The pool table was crackling, the food was frying and some of the best jazz in the city was nightly on the stage. "Some people said it was the dive on the corner, but it was hip," said Carter.
Small things came to mind, like the way she and Cook delighted in watching Lyman's feet dance on the Hammond B3 bass pedals. And she kept coming back to Lyman's uncontainable enthusiasms. A fan of Latin music, he introduced her to that style and grounded her in it so well that when Carter made the jump to the New York scene, she felt comfortable jumping in with the Latin pros. And long after she'd left his group and Detroit, he'd keep in touch, his zest never diminished.
Carter said she got the sad news on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning was laughing at some of her memories. She was hard pressed to summarize the man for anyone who hadn't known him, or to recount an incident that reflected his spirit. He'd lived intensely enough for three lives, she said.
"I had to laugh all morning because he'd call me and he'd basically be so excited he'd be screaming into the phone: Check this out!" said Carter. And you could count on it being some good music he was turning you on to.
Although he retired to his family's home back in Owosso in the '90s, he never cut his ties to the Detroit scene, continuing to play in various formations at various locations, including jazz fest gigs. Those festival gigs included opening or sharing bills with Hammond B3 giants such as Bill Doggett, Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff. Lyman kept playing, Carter noted, out of love of the music, not because he really needed the money. He played at Cliff Bells as recently as a few months ago to celebrate the reissue of Woodard Trio and Organization material from the 1970s and '90s on Leonard King's Uuquipleu label.
King said that listening to those old tapes what struck him was that it was "so obvious that we were totally committed to making this music jump."
I remember a great gig he did for Ken Cockrel Sr. that was so cool! His band was just driving so hard! Leonard King on drums and Lorenzo "Mr. Rhythm" Brown playing percussion — he walked out into the audience and played the most amazing cowbells solo! Who does that?
He and I were Sun Messengers for quite a few years and had two fantastic trips to Key West with the band. His mother (Jane) would always come down. We would play for two weeks down there with one day off in the middle. Jane & Lymo would throw a party at her rented apartment. It was always great fun with the highlight being a speech by Lyman, mostly extemporaneous and always extremely entertaining. Lym was very bright, often writing long letters to the editor at the Freep. Norma Jean Bell flew down to hang with Lym in Key West one year. He was always very close to his friends like that. His old friend Wayne Kramer was living down there and now I consider Wayne to be an old friend because of this. Not many knew that Lym was a member of Kramer's Creamers along with Jerome Spearman.
When my crib burned down, Lyman played at my benefit at the Magic Bag and he played one of my favorite tunes that he did when we were Sun Messengers: "Drown in My Own Tears" by Ray Charles. It usually brought me to tears to hear him do this.
God I loved that guy.
Mr. Woodard: one of a kind...
MT photo by Doug Coombe