The world has lost one of its greatest musical innovators. Widely considered “the world’s greatest jazz organist,” Jimmy Smith died Tues, Feb. 8 of natural causes in his Phoenix home. He was 76.
Although Smith wasn’t the first to play jazz on the Hammond B3 organ, his virtuosity over the instrument combined with his brilliant infusion of gospel, blues and R&B riffs and melodies into bebop-inspired improvisations place him alongside other jazz pioneers, such as Charlie Parker, Art Tatum and John Coltrane – artists who revolutionized the way their respective instruments were played and who are continuing to have a profound influence of other instrumentalists.
“Jimmy was the consummate artist and innovator,” says guitarist Jimmy Ponder, who worked with Smith over the years. “He was ahead of his time on the Hammond B3.”
Starting off as a pianist, Smith attended the Hamilton School of Music in 1948 and later Philadelphia’s Ornstein School of Music the following year. In 1951, he switched to the Hammond B3 organ and made a name for himself in Philly as an outstanding live performer. He eventually moved to New York City, where he debuted at the Café Bohemia. But it was a Birdland date that he caught the attention of Alfred Lions and Francis Wolff, founders of Blue Note Records.
Smith made giant steps
Born, James Oscar Smith, in Norristown, Pa. on Dec. 8, 1925, Smith helped usher in the soul-jazz movement with his galvanizing 1956 Blue Note debut album, A New Sound, A New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, vol. 1. The long-winded title couldn’t be farther from the truth in that it indeed introduced a new jazz sound and star. Older innovators such as Fats Waller and Count Basie had fiddled with the organ, Smith made giant steps with the approach of the instrument, stomping out walking bass lines with the pedals, bolstering the music with blues and gospel chords on his left-hand all while hammering out blistering, intricate improvisations with his right-hand, creating an intoxicating sound that was fat, funky and highly sophisticated.
During his 10-year run with Blue Note, Smith released a slew of albums that have become the bedrock of soul-jazz and major signifiers for today’s jam band and acid jazz scenes. Albums such as The Sermon (1958), Prayer Meetin’ (1960) and Back at the Chicken Shack (1960) all forged hit jukebox singles: a rarity for many jazz artists.
Smith continued to blaze after he left Blue Note for Verve in 1963, which marked a point of stylistic departure for him in terms of repertoire and instrumentation. Prior to Verve, Smith was mostly featured in burning small ensembles, many of his Verve Records found him surrounded in larger orchestral settings, arranged by Oliver Nelson and Lalo Schifrin. Some critics quipped that the orchestral arrangements somewhat drowned out Smith’s flinty organ excursions. Nevertheless, big-band albums, such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1964), The Cat (1964) and Peter and the Wolf (1966) became jazz classics.
Smith’s tenure with Verve concluded in 1972. Like many other jazz musicians in the ’70s, his recording career suffered once record companies started ignoring jazz in favor of rock and R&B. His output on the Decca, Milestone and Elektra labels throughout the late-’70s and ’80s is noticeably smaller than his extensive discography in the’60s. Luckily, he was just as mesmerizing on stage as he was on record, allowing him to thrive on the live music circuit. In the mid-’70s, he and his wife, even opened the Jazz Super Club in Los Angeles.
Once the nascent acid-jazz scene took off in London in 1987, Smith experienced a major renaissance. His older albums from the ’50s and ’60s were being heavily sampled by DJs and rappers. And by the time, the acid-jazz movement made its way to the United States, a rejuvenated Verve was quick to nab him.
In 1995, Verve released Smith’s sizzling Damn!, which was followed by the softer-hued Angel Eyes: Ballads & Slow Jams later that year. To illustrate jazz’s connection to ’90s hip hop and acid-jazz, Verve released a compilation series: Talkin’ Verve: Roots of Acid-Jazz, one of which devoted entirely to Smith’s older recordings for the label. His last CD for Verve, Dot com Blues came out in 2001.
Earlier this year, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded Smith with the prestigious Jazz Masters Fellowship Award.
Scheduled to be released by Concord Records, in mid-February of this year is Legacy, a new collaborative effort between Smith and fellow organist Joey DeFrancesco. "Jimmy was one of the greatest and most innovative musicians of our time. I loved the man and I love the music. He was my idol, my mentor and my friend,” says DeFrancesco.
Smith is survived by two sisters, Janet Taylor and Anita Jones; and three children, Jia, Connie and Jimmy, Jr.
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