Obituary: Jimmy Smith
Braggadocio jazz musician dubbed the Charlie Parker of the Hammond organ
Thursday 10 February 2005
In popularising the instrument for others to follow, Smith displayed a virtuosity that was never matched. In his hands the organ had the range of an orchestra. He provided a powerful rhythmic beat with his feet, modern jazz backing chords with his left hand, and dazzling melody lines with his right.
He made particular use of the contrast between the upper and lower tones of the instrument and had a much more full-bodied sound than those of the earliest jazz organists, Fats Waller and Count Basie. Although Smith was not influenced by either, one of his best-selling albums (he made an enormous number during his career) was made up from the music of Fats Waller. All this was in the idiom of "funky" or "soul" jazz, a gospel music-based style that had him at its centre.
Despite its reliance on mains power the Hammond is one of the most old- fashioned of instruments and should long ago have been swept away by the only more marginally attractive electric piano. Smith stuck with the brute for more than 50 years and his mastery of its every aspect gave him a musical vocabulary that was denied to its other practitioners.
He had begun his career as a pianist, but nobody remembers his playing since he gave up the instrument in 1955. But he kept it in reserve for a rainy day. By necessity he was a relentless self-promoter, and his answer to a question from the writer Alun Morgan was unequivocal: "If you ever heard me play the piano you wouldn't want me to go back to the organ because I'm so good."
Smith's parents taught him piano and his first success was when he was nine in 1935 and won a Philadelphia radio talent contest playing boogie woogie. By 1942 he worked in local night-clubs in a song-and-dance act with his father. Late that year he was conscripted into the US Navy. Discharged in 1947, he studied piano, bass and harmony and musical theory in various local colleges although, remarkably, he claimed never to have learned to read music. He didn't need to, he said, because his ear was so good.
From 1949 onwards he played in little-known rhythm-and-blues bands and in 1953, when he was with Don Gardner and His Sonotones, he heard Wild Bill Davis playing the Hammond. He was instantly attracted to the instrument and began teaching himself to play in a Philadelphia studio that had one.
Eventually he made the down payment on his own instrument, which he kept in a rented room in a Philadelphia warehouse. After a few months he was given his first booking at a club in Atlantic City and early in 1956, now leading a trio, he appeared at the Cafe Bohemia in New York, playing opposite Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
Smith instantly became a major jazz attraction. A sensational appearance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival changed his career. He began a long association with the Blue Note label, recording notable albums with the guitarist Kenny Burrell and the cream of the Hard Bop musicians. In 1962 he moved to the Verve label and had an instant hit when Oliver Nelson arranged the film theme "Walk on the Wild Side" for him. Verve set the organ in more sophisticated surroundings, and in the next four years eight of Smith's albums for the label rose in the Billboard charts.
He toured the world relentlessly until 1975, when he and his wife settled in Los Angeles and opened Jimmy Smith's Jazz Supper Club. The next move was to Nashville, where he worked without success for five years for Quincy Jones's Quest label. Moving to Sacramento in 1989, he had a long period with a broken left arm in a cast. He used a bassist to provide rhythm until his recovery, and played in Britain whilst under this handicap.
"You can say that they called me the Bird of the organ. Some of the people refer to me as the eighth wonder of the world. That statement came from Miles Davis." Despite the braggadocio words, Smith lived quietly off-stage, eschewing showy hotels to stay with the members of his trio.
During the Nineties he toured again, reviving the association with Kenny Burrell to good effect in Japan in 1993 and visiting Britain and Ireland in 1994. He returned to Europe in 1995. Smith claimed that his appeal was universal. Although many jazz lovers dislike the Hammond, he had a large hardcore of devoted followers. The reason, according to Smith, was:
I was born to be a jazz artist. I can play anything. I can play all the way from the masses to the classics, so to speak.
It's hard to find influences from other musicians in his playing:
Nobody needs to influence me. I was always a jazz musician even when I didn't know it. I was like a horse who didn't know where to run.
Smith kept working right up until his death. His last album, Legacy, on which he played with his disciple and fellow organist Joey DeFrancesco, is to be released next Tuesday. It includes reworkings of some of his greatest hits such as "Back at the Chicken Shack" and "Got My Mojo Working for Me".
James Oscar Smith Jnr, organist: born Norristown, Pennsylvania 8 December 1925; married; died New York 8 February 2005.
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