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King of the Hammond B-3 organby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2005 Todd S. Jenkins
For all its versatility, the Hammond B-3 organ has had comparatively few champions in jazz, none greater than Jimmy Smith. The nearly unchallenged master of the jazz organ, humorous and soulful to the very end, died at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, on February 8, 2005, exactly two months after his 76th birthday.
Ron Goldstein, President and CEO of the Verve Music Group, commented, "Jimmy Smith was truly without peer. His creativity and original style put him in a class above all other organists. Fortunately, Jimmy leaves behind a wealth of recordings that can be discovered and cherished forever."
Smith studied piano at Philadelphia's Orenstein and Hamilton Schools of Music in the late 1940s. In 1951, at the age of 23, he switched to the organ because he enjoyed its sound and potential. Soon it became his principal professional instrument. Not long after he erupted into New York's consciousness at the Café Bohemia in the early 1950s, Smith became the voice of the B-3 in jazz contexts. His fusion of R&B, gospel, deep blues and jazz were an irresistible force at the rise of "hard bop", a fresh new sound that set the jazz scene aflame.
Smith made his first of many recordings for Blue Note in February 1956 (issued as A New Voice, A New Star, Vols. 1 and 2). A lauded appearance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival really set things in motion for Smith. Between his debut session and 1963's Rockin' the Boat Smith made nearly forty albums during his first tenure with Blue Note. Back at the Chicken Shack and Midnight Special were back-to-back hits in 1960, forever sealing Smith's reputation as the primary voice of jazz Hammond. His fluid interactions with sidemen like Stanley Turrentine, Kenny Burrell, Jackie McLean and Lee Morgan made for some of the most enjoyable sounds of the era.
In 1962 Smith began recording for the Verve label, where he continued to maintain his prominence. Some of his most exciting and popular recordings were in the company of big bands, including a titanic version of the "Walk on the Wild Side" theme (Bashin', 1962, arranged by Oliver Nelson) and The Cat (1964, arranged by Lalo Schifrin). Along the way he developed an infectious onstage persona, telling ribald jokes and getting the audience involved with performances. But after the tremendous 1972 live session, Root Down, was released, Smith's fortunes took a downward turn.
Throughout the 1970s Smith continued to tour vigorously but slid from label to label, cutting uninspired albums for MGM, DJM and Mercury where he tried his hand at such quickly-tarnishing pop hits as "Pipeline" and "Groovin'". A 1980 reunion with Schifrin, The Cat Strikes Again (Inner City), showed a bit of promise but was still miles from his prior achievements. A period with Elektra better boosted his profile, despite the continuance of questionable covers. By the time Smith returned to the reconstituted Blue Note in 1986 (Go For Whatcha Know, with Burrell, Turrentine and bassist Buster Williams), the public seemed ready to embrace the wild man of the organ once more. With further sessions for Milestone (Fourmost, 1990) and Verve (Damn!, 1995) Smith was soon back at the apex of organ jazz. He continued to cover both new ground and old, often reaching back to his early blues inspirations.
In November 2004, Smith was announced as one of the National Endowment for the Arts' Jazz Masters fellows. In January 2005 he attended the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) conference in Long Beach, California. Smith's last completed recording was Legacy, a session with new-generation organist Joey DeFrancesco, due to be released one week after Smith's death. The album features the legendary master and one of his most ardent followers interpreting some of Smith's best material, such as "Back to the Chicken Shack", "Got My Mojo Workin'", and the more recent "Dot Com Blues".
Smith and DeFrancesco were scheduled to perform together at Yoshi's in Oakland, California from February 16-20, 2005. That will now be a tribute show led by DeFrancesco. Further information can be found at www.yoshis.com.^ Top
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.