Thursday, February 10, 2005

The Incredible Jimmy Smith: An Appreciation

Jimmy Smith was a jazz pioneer of the first order. Beginning in the mid-1950's, Jimmy took the Hammond B-3 organ out of the churches and into the jazz world, combining smooth melodies and funky blues to create a sound unlike any other in its day. Jazz fans responded in droves. In 1962, Jimmy was the first organist ever to to win the most votes in the Down Beat Annual Readers Poll. His simple, yet always satisfying pieces were the product of his loving skill at coaxing the most from his organ and the superb musicians he attracted, such as Stanley Turrentine on tenor sax, Kenny Burrell on guitar, and Art Blakey on the skins. To say he was an innovator is simply too mild. He was a quiet giant. When Jimmy died at his home in Phoenix yesterday at age 76, the world lost a beautiful soul.

I "discovered" Jimmy as a teenager back in the late 60's. I had been exposed to jazz since I was a kid, my father being a fanatical swing band fan. But swing was my father's music, and I grew up in a world of rock, soul, and blues. People forget how common the organ was to popular music in the 60's and early 70's before the stripped-down sound of punk and metal pushed the Hammond and its attendant leslie off the main stage. Bands like the Young Rascals, Soul Survivors, Steppenwolf, Blues Project, and even the Allman Brothers made the organ a centerpiece of their unique sounds. So it wasn't too much of a stretch for me too embrace the bluesy- swing that popped out Jimmy's fingers. The album shown above, Back at the Chicken Shack, was the first real jazz album I ever owned. It didn't matter that the record was recorded in 1960 when I was only a snotty six-year old, I played that record until the grooves wore out, trying my best to plink along on my crappy Epiphone guitar. In a time where music and musicians seemed disposable, I had found something timeless. I credit Jimmy with opening my eyes and ears to jazz, a passion that has become lifelong.

I last caught Jimmy at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in the mid-90's. It was raining (of course) and the mud at the festival site was ankle deep. In other words, it was perfect for true jazz fans in helping to keep the posers away. Jimmy and his combo played underneath a huge circus tent, the biggest venue I had ever seen him in, and the place was packed. Smooth and funky as ever, Jimmy had us dancing in the mud and howling like an old-fashioned revival. I count it as one of the best performances I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

I still have Jimmy Smith's music with me all the time, albeit on CD's and my i-Pod. I wish I could share it with you, like he shared it with me.

Goodbye, Jimmy.
And thanks.

UPDATE 2/11/05:

Cassandra sent along a link to a fine tribute to Jimmy by Richard Harrington of the Washington Post. Not only does the fellow write better'n me, he's got a lot more information to share on "The World's Greatest Jazz Organist." Go read it.