I'm just curious as to what about let's say a saxophone makes it very well suited to jazz music and what about the church organ makes it unsuitable for jazz music.

Is there something innate to the character of those instruments that leads them to be played in certain styles or is Jazz church organ just a style waiting to be created by some young whippersnapper?

  • 11
    Because tritone is illegal in church...
    – John
    Nov 11, 2017 at 9:16
  • 3
    I think this question needs some substantiation - how do you know that about the organ? See: Bethel Gospel Assembly, New York - That's an organ in the back on the right side. OK - it's not 'modern jazz', but....
    – Vector
    Nov 11, 2017 at 13:36
  • 3
    Example of a jazz artist who used a church organ: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fats_Waller
    – Hobbes
    Nov 11, 2017 at 19:03
  • Check out Above the Clouds by Mark Ramsden (saxophone) and Steve Lodder (pipe organ). It's on spotify. Mark Ramsden played sax on the Tom Robinson song War Baby. His playing is gorgeous. Feb 18, 2022 at 18:41

7 Answers 7


Two Reasons that I'd suggest:

Location, Context, Cost: Where are church organs? In churches... jazz is commonly a rejected genre preference by churches that own church organs. Remember that is today, just ponder on the rejection jazz would of received from churches in the era in which jazz originated. Clearly the church organ wasn't off to a good start in the culture of jazz. Many of the instruments in main stream jazz aren't that all expensive in the time of early jazz and back then it was a source of income for many families. So there would always be a neighbour or household in the street with a piano or other affordable instruments (guitar and woodwinds). Many of the homes would contain mini church organs too, but who wants to lunk that thing around gig to gig when you're trying to make an income?

Sound: Just like any genre, the culture of a jazz defined its basic 'what's allowed' instruments many years ago, most of us still stick to today. In fact, Google's definition of jazz literally contains those main stream instruments that were defined in its making. You'll notice that all the instruments that are mentioned all share a common theme, they're mellow instruments or can be played that way. Since the church organ is reliant on great amounts of air pressure, being mellow is simply not an option. The church organ would simply overpower a jazz band. Therefore, a church organ would simply throw off main stream jazz.

Overall, the reason why the church organ isn't commonly seen in jazz is because the instrument was impractical in era in which jazz was defined. Think of rock'n'roll, it was defined by electric guitars, drums and some crazy singing, why don't we add bag-pipes to rock'n'roll? The same goes with church organs and jazz, mainstream musical culture. However, as technology progressed having a church organ can now be as accessible as clicking a button on your keyboard. Since that, the organ occasionally makes an appearance in jazz, usually with the rotary effect. See! But still not that common because of the genre's culture.

  • 3
    good post, the last para made me think of this rock'n'roll song, you may find it interesting. youtube.com/watch?v=-sUXMzkh-jI
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 11, 2017 at 10:06
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    @ToddWilcox - the answer I heard was 'A start.'
    – Tim
    Nov 11, 2017 at 14:16
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    The definition of a gentleman: one who owns bagpipes, but doesn’t play them. Nov 11, 2017 at 14:31
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    A piano is very far from being a cheap instrument to say the least. Feb 18, 2022 at 23:37
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    The rotary effect predates the organ being available as "a click on the keyboard" by several decades. Also, the statement "Since the church organ is reliant on great amounts of air pressure, being mellow is simply not an option" is utterly false.
    – phoog
    Feb 21, 2022 at 7:19

There is so much jazz music written for pipe organ it'll make your head spin. (Just last month I played a nice toccata on O when the saints for my congregation.) In general, at least some practitioners of most religions, and certainly of most Christian denominations, embrace almost any musical style there is.

The reason you don't hear it more often is the same reason as for many other styles: location, location, location! Pipe organs are found almost exclusively in churches and concert halls, while jazz is more often played in clubs and bars.

  • Depends which denominations, but I guarantee when Jazz started back then over 90% of churchs would of called 'blasphemy'!
    – John
    Nov 11, 2017 at 10:15
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    Sure, they almost always do this with new things. In fact, the Christian church also called "blasphemy!" at the first pipe organs! But within a generation it had become the accepted way to make music in churches. Nov 11, 2017 at 11:44
  • @KilianFoth church of christ denominations would generally STILL call pipe organs blasphemy. A Capella is the only acceptable worship for a lot of em.
    – user42882
    Nov 11, 2017 at 22:00

You are aware that the Hammond organ was created as a church organ? It became one of the seminal instruments for jazz, with the main reasons being portability (well, compared to a pipe organ that is) and affordability (well, again compared to a pipe organ). The Leslie rotary speakers helped setting its sound off from congregational use. It took a number of decades before Hammond accepted them as a legit extension of the organ: he changed the organ connectors several times in order to stop the use of Leslie speakers.

The previous compromise, namely a theater organ, was still rather immobile and expensive and many were scrapped eventually when silent film died.

Since Hammond organs were designed as church organs, it is probably fair to say that price and venue were the main impediment for pipe organs as a mainstream jazz instrument. After all, jazz was the music of the devil, so practice and performance in a church would have been somewhat tricky.


It does happen occasionally, but it's not common. One example off the top of my head is Barbara Dennerlein's numerous pipe organ albums. But it's not common for exactly the same reasons as why, for example, rock typically features guitars. Each genre of music has its own typical instrument lineup, and while some people will experiment with other instruments most people will stick to what's standard.


"Church" organs are basically permanently installed in the building and can't be moved around to church socials in the basement (which is why the Hammond was created for the church), or to honkytonks, juke joints or other clubs, or recording studios (which is where jazz is played).


Barbara Dennerlein does it on a regular basis; about 50% of her concerts are pipe organ concerts.

One of the main reasons you seldom hear jazz on pipe organs: Most jazz organists don't have the sufficient bass pedal technique. And the bass pedals are a major part of pipe organs.


Any organ in a church would be a "church organ" right? Unless you specifically mean a pipe organ.

Of course organs are used in jazz: Jimmy Smith for example. Wild Bill Davis is another.

Do the old giant theater organs not count? Certainly jazz was played on those organs.

If you mean something like "why isn't jazz played on organs in a church", the obvious answer is churches already have music for services and it isn't jazz.

Now "what is jazz?" needs to be unpacked.

If you consider certain blues or gospel styles to be essentially forms of jazz, but with different lyrical content, then you have jazz in church. Then question the circles back around to: does the church have an organ?

I'm reminded of a Pentecostal family I was friends with in high school who ran a small church. The eldest song played jazzy gospel keyboard. They had organs in the house and in the church. There wasn't much difference in his playing in the church or in the house, although his playing was probably funkier in the house and more subdued in church. His playing was totally ad lib. I think it fair to say his style was jazz.

Just like European "classical" music had a secular/sacred dichotomy, so does African-American music. I read a very good book that discusses the topic: Murray, Stomping the Blues. The chapter The Blue Devils and the Holy Ghost is the main discussion. Don't dismiss the "blues" in the title, the book covers Ellington, Basie, Armstrong, etc. The book broadly makes the point that the only difference between secular/sacred, jazz/gospel, is the venue.

I think the answer is if you go to a church with the right musical tradition, and that church happens to have an organ, you will hear jazz on a church organ.

There may not be a lot of churches like that compared to other churches, or they may not be in your social circle.


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