Twenty years ago, organist Chris Hazelton wasn’t an organist––he was a bassist.
Now a jewel of the region, Hazleton was first drawn to the organ in 2004 while listening to an album by fusion band Medeski Martin & Wood. Hazelton’s then-professor at Kansas City Kansas Community College told Hazelton he had to check out local jazz legend Everette DeVan.
Soon after, a nineteen-year-old Hazelton snuck into Bobby’s Hangout, where DeVan’s trio was the house band. Amid a backdrop of velvet curtains in the swanky Midtown cocktail lounge, DeVan swung effortlessly on his Hammond B-3 organ console.
“I was blown away and floored,” Hazelton says. “It was like: ‘Well, this is what I have to play. This is the instrument I was meant to pick up.”
After sneaking in a few more times to listen to DeVan, Hazelton worked up the courage to introduce himself and inquire about lessons. Immediately, DeVan invited him to come over the following Tuesday, marking the beginning of a mentorship that ensued until DeVan’s death in 2021.
In August, Hazelton released After Dark on Vancouver label Cellar Music, harkening back to tradition with his first swinging, straight-ahead jazz album in over a decade.
A striking contrast from his more recent releases with his popular soul jazz project Boogaloo 7, Hazelton grooves equally as hard on After Dark’s standards as he does playing funky favorites on First Fridays at the West Bottom’s The Ship.
Backed by John Kizilarmut on drums, Brett Jackson on baritone saxophone, Pat Conway on congas and Jamie Anderson on guitar, Hazelton’s quintet of longtime collaborators is commanding.
“After Everette passed, I realized there’s a very specific sound within the organ that he taught me that’s pretty unique to him and this region,” Hazleton says. “So a lot of the tunes on the album highlight that laid-back swing that he was known for.”
The album’s final track, “Watch What Happens,” epitomizes that style. The buoyant yet relaxed swing driven by Kizilarmut––combined with Conway’s conga playing and the dense, gritty marriage of the B-3 and Jackson on bari sax––brings a fresh and uniquely Kansas City feel to a beloved standard.
“I wanted to show that mainstream jazz can still have a nice groove,” Hazelton says.
The album also marks a new chapter and musical motivation for Hazelton. Over the past couple years, Hazelton lost two of his most notable mentors––DeVan and Dr. Lonnie Smith––and one of his closest friends and musical collaborators, drummer Kevin Frazee.
“It seemed like losses were becoming a pattern and grief was becoming more than I could bear,” Hazelton wrote in the album’s liner notes. “I suddenly felt a new weight of responsibility for carrying on the tradition of the Hammond B-3 organ in jazz. Consequently, I found a fresh sense of purpose and inspiration.“
And it made him realize it was time to get back in the studio.
“After dark, there is always light,” Hazelton says.