Obituary: Jimmy Smith

Braggadocio jazz musician dubbed the Charlie Parker of the Hammond organ

THE HAMMOND B3 organ is an unlovely instrument that conjures images of Blackpool, fish and chips and cinema organists who could play "Rule Britannia" using only their feet. Jimmy Smith was its finest jazz exponent and a hot property as far as the Blue Note and Verve record companies were concerned. It seemed that all his albums were big sellers and the fact that some of the best (better) jazz musicians of the day often appeared on them was incidental.

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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links