When Gene Ludwig was 21, he flipped a coin to determine which career path he would follow. Heads, he would continue the job he had at the time as a civil engineer. Tails, music would win out.
The coin came up tails -- and a legend was born.
Mr. Ludwig, a leading figure in the Pittsburgh jazz scene for half a century and internationally regarded as one of the titans of the Hammond organ, died Wednesday in West Penn-Forbes Regional Campus. The Monroeville resident was 72.
The cause of death was undetermined pending an autopsy.
Born in Twin Rocks, Cambria County, and reared in Wilkinsburg and Swissvale, Mr. Ludwig began taking piano lessons at age 6. Originally influenced by big-band music, his musical direction switched after listening to the R&B that disc jockey Porky Chedwick played on WHOD.
"He was playing a lot of Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and organ players like Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis," Mr. Ludwig said in an 2003 interview. "I just fell in love with the groove, and I started trying some of that on the piano."
After graduating from Swissvale High School in 1955, he attended what is now Edinboro University of Pennsylvania to study physics and mathematics but was forced to leave because his father was on strike at Westinghouse Electric. Returning to Pittsburgh, he took a job at Fuller Construction and began performing with vocal groups around town on the side.
Mr. Ludwig had his epiphany while visiting the Hurricane, a Hill District nightclub that featured a lot of organ trios, popular in the 1960s, to hear Jimmy Smith. Consequently, he decided to buy a Hammond organ, first an M100 and then a C model. After a 1964 gig in Atlantic City, N.J., on which they shared a bill, Mr. Smith influenced Mr. Ludwig to buy a B-3.
Despite the heft of the organ, about 400 pounds not including the obligatory Leslie speaker, "he never jumped quickly for that synthesizer [substitute]," said George Heid, a drummer and Aspinwall resident who met Mr. Ludwig when Mr. Heid was still in high school and went to see him play every chance he got -- which wasn't often in those days because Mr. Ludwig was working the "chitlin' circuit" of black clubs that featured jazz and R&B artists. Later, Mr. Heid and Mr. Ludwig would do several years of gigs together.
"He would haul that instrument, and he'd do it alone," Mr. Heid said. "He absolutely stayed loyal to the music," of late still traveling along the East Coast and even to Columbus, Ohio, to perform.
Tom Wendt, of Lawrenceville, Mr. Ludwig's most recent drummer, also noted that Mr. Ludwig sacrificed financially to maintain his artistic integrity.
"It could have been very easy for him to take another musical avenue that could have gained him notoriety," Mr. Wendt said. "He played jazz, he played rhythm and blues, and he never deviated from that."
Mr. Heid said Mr. Ludwig was "superhonest, fair as can be" and displayed "compassion and respect for those that joined him" on the stand. Eschewing the custom many band leaders had of taking the lion's share of gig pay, "Gene divided the money equally."
Though not known as a recording artist, Mr. Ludwig released numerous albums and CDs as both a sideman and leader. In 1969, he appeared on saxophonist Sonny Stitt's "Night Letter" and released "Now is the Time" about a decade later. He signed a record deal in 1997 with Blues Leaf Records and cut several CDs for that label, the most recent with the Bill Warfield Big Band in 2007.
His stature as an organ legend led to marriage, as his wife of nearly nine years, Pattye, was a fan of jazz organ. She was a volunteer at the Pittsburgh Jazz Society, which at the time held its weekly Sunday concerts at Foster's Bar & Grill at the Holiday Inn in Oakland. He played there in April 2000, and "I sold his CDs for him," she said. Later, he began showing up at other PJS concerts -- but not just for the music.
"He [was] just an old-style gentleman," Mrs. Ludwig said. "They don't really make them like that anymore -- I fell pretty hard for him." They were married in September 2001.
Tenor saxophonist Eric DeFade of Reserve also noted that Mr. Ludwig "was very supportive of younger musicians -- he'd let anyone sit in. He wasn't someone who would cut people or 'teach them a lesson.' " In fact, at the time of his death, "he was still learning new tunes -- he never stopped trying to advance himself."
Mr. Ludwig left no other survivors.
Visitation will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. Monday and 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday in Jobe Funeral Home, Beatty Road at Route 48, Monroeville. A musical tribute will take place at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Palmieri's Restaurant, Plum, followed by lunch. Mr. Ludwig's remains will be cremated.
Rick Nowlin: email@example.com or 412-263-3871.