Since the 1950s, Jimmy Smith has been hailed as the preeminent jazz master of the Hammond B-3 organ. A onetime bebop pianist, Smith was one of the first artists to develop an approach that incorporated modern jazz values into his virtuosity on this particular electrified keyboard. Working with other noted musicians in trios and quartets, Smith’s legendary style—especially in leading some acclaimed sessions on the Blue Note label in the early years of his career—eventually segued into what became known as soul jazz during the 1960s. New Statesman writer Richard Cook called Smith “the main reason why a whole genre of music came into being. There were organists in jazz before Jimmy Smith, but he turned the electric Hammond B-3 from an ice-rink novelty into a legitimate vehicle for keyboard players who wanted something beefier and louder than the piano.” Smith’s finessed style fell out of favor for a time, but later in his life the musician enjoyed a resurgence of the Hammond, and with it the renewed appreciation for his lifelong devotion to it.
Smith was born in Norristown, a town outside of Philadelphia, on December 8, 1928, as James Oscar Smith. Early on, it was apparent that he had inherited the musical abilities of his parents, both piano players.
Born James Oscar Smith on December 8, 1928, in Norristown, PA; son of a plasterer; married Edna Joy Goins, March 31, 1957; children: Jimmy Jr., Jia. Education: Attended the Halsey Music School, the Hamilton School of Music, and Ornstein School of Music, all in Philadelphia, 1947–50.
Began career with Don Gardner’s Sonotones as R&B pianist, 1951; made professional debut as jazz organist in Atlantic City, NJ, in the summer of 1955; signed to Blue Note Records, 1956; released first LP, A New Sound, A New Star; signed to Verve Records, 1962.
Awards: Recipient first place in Down Beat Jazz Poll in Organ category, 1964—; Grammy Award, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, for The Cat, 1964.
Addresses: Record company —Elektra Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York City, NY 10019.
Though his father worked as a plasterer by day, the elder Smith was a locally renowned stride piano player who taught his son the instrument as well as the rudiments of jazz musicianship. As a nine year old, Smith won an amateur hour on a national radio contest and by his early teens was appearing on stage in a combo with his father. But Smith was forced to drop out of school during the seventh grade in order to help support the family when his father became unable to work because of a knee injury. As a teen, he worked as a stock clerk in a shoe store, washed windows for Norristown businesses, and enlisted in the United States Navy at the age of 15 in 1943 during the height of World War II.
Smith spent four years in the service and, upon his discharge in 1947, was eligible for the tuition assistance program under the G.I. Bill. He enrolled in Halsey Music School, where he studied harmony and theory, and then took courses at the Hamilton School of Music; he also studied piano and bass at the Ornstein School of Music until 1950. Unable to read music—usually a prerequisite for formal music schooling—Smith was so talented that he was able to play pieces by ear and deceive his teachers. He was also taking part in jam sessions in Philadelphia jazz clubs, playing what was called “bump piano.” As he explained in an interview with Pete Fallico, a California disc jockey, in an article published on the Website jazzateria.com, bump piano was a frenetic assemblage of musicians and instruments where improvisation reigned supreme. “If you repeat yourself, you get bumped,” Smith recalled. “Just one note or one bass line, one anything—you bumped!”
Around this time, Smith was invited to play the first set in a gig led by bebop horn player Charlie Parker, one of his role models, when Parker’s piano player—a rival of Smith’s—didn’t show up. By 1951, he had joined Don Gardner’s Sonotones, a local combo, but grew increasingly dissatisfied with the instrument. “The pianos were always so out of tune, it was ridiculous,” he recalled in an interview with Dan Ouellette for Down Beat “Plus, the ivory was so worn out on the keys, I was getting blisters from playing on the wood.” Smith knew about a jazz organist named Wild Bill Davis and went to see a show of his at a New Jersey venue called the Harlem Club around 1954. He was fascinated by the sounds emitted by the monstrous instrument, with its panoply of foot pedals and rotating speaker. Davis tried to discourage him from taking up the Hammond, telling him that just mastering the pedals took years.
Feeling challenged, Smith found an organ of his own through unusual means and had it brought to the warehouse where he worked with his father as a plasterer. As he told Fallico, “I got my organ from a loan shark [who] had it shipped to the warehouse. I stayed in that warehouse, I would say, six months to a year. I would do just like the guys do—take my lunch, then I’d go and set down at this beast.” He had a friend from the Ornstein school draw a diagram of the various foot pedals and posted it above the organ so he would not have to look down. Smith finessed a highly idiosyncratic style that included the arduous tasks of pumping the pedals with his heels—since a toe wears out more quickly than a heel, one older organist once pointed out to him—while beating out solo riffs with his right hand and the chordal accompaniment with his left hand.
Smith fell in love with the Hammond, a passion that had not abated in the 40-year interim when he spoke to Ouellette. “The Hammond has body. It’s got depth—and resonance. It’s got clarity—and quality,” he told the Down Beat writer. “And you can feel it. It’s not so much that you can hear it. It’s the feeling that’s important. You see, it’s like a drummer. You don’t want to hear him. You want to feel him. You can have the best drummer in the world, but if he’s too loud, he’s out of place. With the Hammond, you feel it in your bones.”
Smith made his professional debut on the Hammond in 1955 in an Atlantic City solo gig. By the end of the summer, he had formed a trio with an electric guitar and drums, and at their first New York show, in January of 1956, Smith’s new manager invited an executive from the Blue Note record label to witness the Small’s Paradise gig in Harlem. The executive was impressed by Smith’s virtuosity, and he was signed to a contract soon afterward. His first release for the label was New Sound, New Star in 1956. For other recording sessions, Smith paired with some of the most outstanding names in jazz at the time, including Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson, Percy France, and Stanley Turrentine. These early releases included House Party and The Sermon, but it was one marathon studio session led by Smith and his Hammond on February of 1957 that earned him a devoted following. The tracks, in the order in which they were taped for posterity, were re-released in the mid-1990s on the CD format as The Complete February 1957 Jimmy Smith Blue Note Sessions. Other noted works from this era include Back at the Chicken Shack and Prayer Meetin’. “Though there was plenty of subtlety in Smith’s playing, it was its churning excitement that people responded to,” wrote Cook in New Statesman.
Smith switched to another premier jazz label in 1962 when he signed with Verve Records. He became part of the “soul jazz” movement, which incorporated jazz rhythms into a more melodic structure. He continued to release records that won critical acclaim from jazz aficionados, such as The Cat, for which he won a Grammy Award in 1964. It was also the year that Smith and his Hammond finally began to win recognition inside the jazz community as well: in the annual Down Beat readers’ polls, the organ had been relegated to the “miscellaneous instrument” category; it was Smith’s stellar reputation that forced the magazine to give it its own slot, and, in the poll that year, Smith took in more than 4,400 votes as best in his field. The nearest competitor earned just 569 votes.
Smith’s mid-career output for Verve did not always earn him positive reviews. His covers of rock tunes from the era, such as the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”—the label’s effort to popularize the organ sound—were considered less than exemplary of his talents, and his career at Verve ended in 1972. He released a number of other records during the decade, but the organ had fallen out of favor, and its dramatic, multilayered sound came to seem dated. Other jazz musicians began to achieve fame with a new breed of synthesizers, which Smith derided. As he asserted in the Down Beat interview with Ouellette, such electronic keyboards emit a sound that “makes me want to throw up,” and he was convinced that they would eventually die out in popularity among jazz listeners. For a time, Smith had his own label, Mojo, and continued to tour in Europe and Israel. In the mid-1970s, he and his wife ran their own jazz club in Los Angeles.
As he predicted, Smith’s career underwent a renaissance of sorts in the early 1980s when he began touring again, and he even returned to New York City to play. Blue Note offered him a new contract in 1985, and by the early 1990s, vintage soul jazz was undergoing its own renaissance, celebrated as the precursor acid jazz and sampled by a new generation of electronic artists. Both Blue Note and Verve began issuing re-releases of some of Smith’s classic early work. Angel Eyes, a 1995 Verve LP, featured what Down Beat’s Ouellette termed “blues-drenched, soul-moldering ballads.”
Blue Note also issued a pair of records of a 1993 performance by Smith in Japan as The Master. It featured his longtime guitarist, Kenny Burrell, and a drummer also named Jimmie Smith. Yet the second of the records prompted Ouellette to term them unremarkable examples of Smith’s legendary prowess. “The only redeeming quality to The Master II is hearing Smith go into a B-3 trance where it sounds like he’s even surprising himself with the swells of his organ ecstasy,” wrote the Down Beat reviewer. “Those off-mic growly shouts—‘Woooah!’ ‘Wow!’ ‘Aaaah!’ ‘Ha ha ha!’—are great.”
A New Sound, A New Star, Blue Note, 1956.
The Champ, Blue Note, 1956.
The Complete February 1957 Jimmy Smith Blue Note Sessions, Mosaic, 1957.
House Party, Blue Note, 1957.
The Sermon, Blue Note, 1958.
Open House/Plain Talk, Blue Note, 1960.
Back At The Chicken Shack, Blue Note, 1960.
The Cat, Verve, 1964.
The Dynamic Duo, Verve, 1966.
All the Way Live, 1981.
Midnight Special, 1989.
Damn!, Verve, 1995.
Angel Eyes, Verve, 1995.
Ultimate Jimmy Smith, 1999.
Root Down, 2000.
Down Beat, January 1995, p. 30; October 1996, p. 47; June 1997, p. 49.
Hammond Times, July/August 1964.
New Statesman, March 12, 1999, p. 36.
“Jimmy Smith,” http://www.jazzateria.com (September 10, 2000).
More than any other musician, Jimmy Smith was responsible for the rise in prominence of the Hammond B-3 organ in jazz. "He revolutionized the instrument," wrote Ron Wynn and Bob Porter in All Music Guide, "showing it could be creatively used in a jazz context and popularized in the process." With classic pieces like "The Sermon!" in 1957 and "Back at the Chicken Shack" in 1960, and a series of hit albums on Blue Note and Verve during the 1950s and 1960s, Smith set the standard for other jazz organists. His style and approach would also bridge the gap between jazz styles during these same years. "There were organists in jazz before Jimmy Smith," noted Richard Cook in the New Statesman, "but he turned the electric Hammond B-3 from an ice-rink novelty into a legitimate vehicle for keyboard players who wanted something beefier and louder than the piano."
Jimmy Smith was born James Oscar Smith on December 8, in either 1925 or 1928 (traditional sources list 1925; his family claims 1928), in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a musical family, and initially learned piano from both of his parents. By the age of 12, Smith had won his first competition in a stride piano contest, and as a teenager he worked in a song and dance duo with his father. The duo found multiple opportunities in Philadelphia, only 20 miles distant from Norristown, on the radio and in clubs. Smith entered the Navy in the mid-1940s and when he was discharged in 1947 he was able to attend school on the GI Bill. He attended both the Hamilton School of Music (1948) and the Ornstein's School of Music (1949-50) in Philadelphia, studying piano and bass.
In 1951 Smith joined Don Gardner's Sonotones, an R&B band, and soon started to experiment with the Hammond organ. His interest in the organ was spurred on when he attended shows by Wild Bill Davis, the leading organ player of the time, at Club Harlem in New Jersey. "Bill had everything goin'," Smith told Pete Fallico at Jazz Ateria. In 1954 Smith bought his first organ and began to explore its possibilities in a Philadelphia warehouse, emulating the styles of saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, and Arnette Cobb. "I copped my solos from horn players," he told Fallico. "I don't listen to keyboard players. I can't get what I want from keyboard players." Two years later he brought his new organ sound to New York City and debuted at Small's Paradise in Harlem. He soon signed with Blue Note Records and appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.
Between Smith's Blue Note recording debut in 1956 and his last album for the label in 1963, the Hammond B-3 organ powerfully inserted itself into the sound of contemporary jazz. Even the audacious title of his first album, A New Sound, a New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, lived up to its billing. "The emergence of Jimmy Smith in 1956 was quite noteworthy," wrote Scott Yanow in All Music Guide. "Here was an organist who could play his instrument with the facility of a Charlie Parker and yet could also dig into a lowdown blues." Smith recorded quickly and prolifically for Blue Note, first in the trio format and later in larger ensembles. Many of the recordings between 1957 and 1960 were loose jam sessions, allowing the musicians ample room (as much as 15 and 20 minutes per composition) to develop soulful solos. Smith's adventurous work in the late 1950s was instrumental in developing both hard bop, an extension of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's bop style, and soul jazz, a style that incorporated R&B, gospel, and the blues.
In 1962 Smith signed with Verve Records (Blue Note albums continued to be issued through 1963), a relationship that would last until the early 1970s. During that time he recorded the classic Jimmy and Wes: The Dynamic Duo with guitarist Wes Montgomery in 1966. "Although it is unfortunate that the Smith-Wes collaboration was short-lived (just one other album)," wrote Yanow, "it is miraculous that they did find each other and created this brilliant music." Smith also toured frequently in the 1960s and 1970s before moving with his wife to Los Angeles, where he opened Jimmy Smith's Supper Club.
In the early 1980s Smith returned to the spotlight with the release of Off the Top, his first album for a major label in nearly ten years. "Smith plays some unusual material. … on this LP," noted Yanow, "but swings everything and has a particularly strong supporting cast." In the 1990s Smith made two tours of Europe despite a broken arm, and made appearances at the Glasgow Jazz Festival. "With British outfits such as the James Taylor Quartet and the Tommy Chase Band championing the Hammond sound," wrote Rob Adams in the Glasgow Herald, "audiences over here were primed for the live experience of what had become known as acid jazz's originator."
Smith's influence over other organists was extensive. "Before Jimmy," organist Joey DeFrancesco told Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune, "everyone approached the organ like a big band, with big block chords, but Jimmy did things that never were done before." Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, and many others followed in Smith's footsteps during the 1960s, developing within the parameters of his innovations. His influence also extended to other instrumentalists. "Jimmy was playing modal things in the early '50s," guitarist Henry Johnson told Reich, "and John Coltrane picked up a lot of that from him."
On February 8, 2005, Smith died in his sleep at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. Jazz organist Joey De-Francesco, quoted in Jazz Times, noted that "Jimmy was one of the greatest and most innovative musicians of our time. I love the man and I love the music." Smith and DeFrancesco had recently recorded an album together and had planned a national tour. The album, Legacy, was released by Concord Records only days after Smith's death. "Doubly blessed with a quicksilver technique and an unusually advanced harmonic imagination," wrote Reich, "He invented a brilliant new way of addressing the organ."
A New Sound, A New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, Vol. 1, Blue Note, 1956.
A New Sound, A New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, Vol. 2, Blue Note, 1956.
The Champ, Blue Note, 1956.
The Sermon, Blue Note, 1958.
Bashin': The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith, Verve, 1962.
Jimmy and Wes: The Dynamic Duo, Verve, 1968.
Root Down, Verve, 1972.
Off the Top, Elektra, 1982.
Damn!, Verve, 1995.
(With Joey DeFrancesco) Legacy, Concord, 2005.
For the Record …
Born James Oscar Smith on December 8, 1925, in Norristown, PA; died on February 8, 2005, in Scottsdale, AZ.
Joined Don Gardner's Sonotones, 1951; debuted as solo act at Small's Paradise in Harlem, 1956; signed to Blue Note Records, 1956; performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1957; signed to Verve Records, 1962; opened Jimmy Smith's Supper Club in Los Angeles, 1970s; recorded last album, Legacy, with Joey De-Francesco, 2005.
Erlewine, Michael, executive editor, All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman Books, 1998.
Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2005.
Herald (Glasgow, Scotland), February 16, 2005, p. 18.
New Statesman, March 12, 1999, p. 36.
Washington Post, February 11, 2005, p. B8.
"Jimmy Smith," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com/ (March 10, 2005).
"Jimmy Smith," Jazz Ateria,http://www.jazzateria.com/ (March 10, 2005).
"Jimmy Smith Dies," Jazz Times,http://www.jazztimes.com (March 10, 2005).
Born James Oscar Smith, December 8, 1928, in Norristown, PA; died February 8, 2005, in Scottsdale, AZ. Jazz musician. When many people think of jazz, most think of the saxophone, the drums, or the piano. Though jazz great Fats Waller made the organ popular, it faded into the background in the early 20th century until Jimmy Smith brought it back. Smith also brought a new style of play to the organ, and it became a mainstay in jazz music and catapulted Smith to legendary status.
Smith was born into a musical family on December 8, 1928, though many references give his birth year as 1925. His father taught him to play the piano, and young Jimmy won a contest playing the stride piano at age 12. Smith dropped out of school after completing the eighth grade. He made a living playing the piano and also worked with his father as a dancer. Smith joined the Navy at age 15, and played in a segregated band during his tour of duty. After his discharge, he used his GI Bill to attend Philadelphia's prestigious Hamilton School of Music and the Ornstein School, where he studied piano and double bass.
Smith joined a R&B band called the Soundtones, but also worked in construction and later for the Pennsylvania Railroad during the day. He heard Wild Bill Davis—who pioneered the organ trio format—playing one night and asked him how long it would take to learn to play the organ. Davis told him it would take years to master the pedals alone. Smith borrowed money and bought a Hammond B3 organ. He practiced during the day, and played at various clubs at night. He mastered the pedals in months, and soon began playing in various venues in the area, and debuted at the legendary Small's Paradise in New York.
Using a pedal style created by organist Bill Doggett to bring out the percussive sound, Smith also worked to use his left hand to bring out a saxophone-like sound and modal tones usually associated with the piano, and his right hand to play the melodies and improvisations. In an article he wrote for the Hammond Times, excerpted in the New York Times by Ben Ratliff, Smith stated, "While others think of the organ as a full orchestra, I think of it as a horn.… I wanted that single-line sound like a trumpet, a tenor or an alto saxophone." He took part in trios and also big bands, and soon word spread about his style of play that combined the blues, R&B, and gospel. Though the Philadelphia area was known for an aggressive organ style that combined blues with bebop, Smith became the king of the new style as he was the only one who could masterfully handle the pedals on the organ. "It was organ city but Jimmy was the king because he knew how to use his feet more effectively than any of us," jazz organist Jimmy McGriff told London's Times. Thanks to him, the growing popularity of the organ saw the creation and subsequent spread of organ rooms (trendy bars and clubs that featured organ trios) along the East Coast.
Smith and his band played at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957. This brought him to the attention of the Blue Note record label. His first release, A New Sound, A New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, debuted with much fanfare. At times he was billed as the Incredible Jimmy Smith. He recorded more than 30 albums with Blue Note in a short period of time. Smith also collaborated with numerous musicians, including guitarist and college professor Kenny Burrell, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, and trumpeter Lee Morgan. His releases included The Sermon, The Cat, and Bashin'.
Smith switched to the Verve record label in 1962. He continued to release new albums throughout the 1960s and the early part of the 1970s. He also worked with legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery. Smith began touring extensively, but slowed down when he and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1980. He opened the Jimmy Smith Supper Club. For several years, Smith toured and also performed at his club, which closed down a few years after it opened.
In the 1990s, Smith began releasing new albums, signing with the Concord jazz label. He also began to tour again. He worked with fellow organist Joey DeFrancesco, often performing with him at a local club on Sunday afternoons. Word soon spread, and the two began attracting large crowds. Smith and his wife soon moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2004. He was also named a "Jazz Master" by the National Endowment of the Arts in 2004. Smith and De-Francesco recorded an album together, Legacy , and began preparation to go on tour. Before this could occur, Smith died at home in his sleep of natural causes on February 8, 2005, at the age of 76. His album was released posthumously. He was preceded in death by his wife, Lola, months earlier, and is survived by two daughters, a son, and a stepson. DeFrancesco told Jon Thurber in the Los Angeles Times, "Jimmy was one of the greatest and most innovative musicians of our time."Sources: Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2005, sec. 3, p. 10; Contemporary Musicians, vol. 54, Gale Group, 2005; Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2005, p. B10; New York Times, February 10, 2005, p. C17; Times (London), March 31, 2005, p. 58; Washington Post, February 11, 2005, p. B8.