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Wall of Sound: Jimmy Smith (1928-2005)

Matt Rogers

Memorializing the peerless master of the Hammond B3.

True, the "Wall of Sound" typically referred to Phil Spector's thick-as-a-brick production style that garnered so many mega-hits for so many, from the Righteous Brothers to the Beatles. But you wouldn't be wrong to use the moniker to describe organist Jimmy Smith, who died in his sleep at home, February 8th. With the help of a Hammond B3 organ, the enigmatic Smith was wall of sound incarnate, a fortitude of overwhelming sonic experience. As veteran bebop saxophonist Lou Donaldson stated shortly after Smith's funeral, "The first time I heard Jimmy Smith I almost had a heart attack. I didn't know what that was -- a train, a hurricane, something. And all his life he was bad!"

And Run-DMC-bad ("not bad meanin' bad but bad meanin' good") is what you need to be to master the Hammond electric organ -- invented by a tone-deaf clockmaker set on putting church pipe organs out of business during the Great Depression, the 400-plus-pound instrument was arguably the world's first synthesizer -- as it presents even the most up-to-the-task musician unique challenges. To play the beast masterfully requires maximum human effort, the skills of a drummer, pianist, guitarist, and horn player wrapped into one. Throughout his 50-year recording career, Jimmy Smith flexed these skills like no other.

It has always been a matter of debate whether James Oscar Smith was born December 8th, 1925 or 1928 (his family says it's the latter) in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a mere 20 miles from what quickly became the cradle of Hammond civilization: Philadelphia. Born into a musically inclined family -- both his parents were pianists -- Smith learned to play from his father and won his first stride-piano contest by the age of 12. Throughout the early 1940s, the teenager teamed with his dad as a song-and-dance act, the duo bringing their show to clubs and radio shows in the Philly area. After joining the Navy for a few years, Smith, thanks to the GI Bill, was able to hone his musical skills at Ornstein's School of Music, where he studied piano and bass. At night he would further refine his playing in many of Philly's popular "bump" piano jams, where a player would get "bumped" if they repeated a single note or bass line. By 1951, Smith was garnering attention from the local pros, and he landed a gig with drummer Don Gardner's R&B group, the Sonotones. But it was the Hammond organ, a relatively new instrument to the music scene, that would ultimately grab his ear, and then all of his limbs.

Jimmy Smith was by no means the first person to utilize the Hammond organ in a jazz context. Other pianists, such as Fats Waller, Count Basie, Sarah Mclawler, as well as a slew of Louis Jordan alumni -- Milt Buckner, Bill Doggett, and Wild Bill Davis -- had successful stabs at the dual-manual monster. But it was Jimmy Smith who squeezed out the most of the instrument's potential. Smith became smitten with the organ in an Atlantic City club after hearing how Wild Bill Davis could use it to make his trio sound like a big band. With Davis's aid and encouragement, Jimmy bought an organ on installment plan, then woodshedded for a year in a warehouse where he kept his organ. When Smith emerged in 1955, he quickly landed a record deal with Blue Note, and made a string of records that would not only change the face of jazz but would eventually seep into the worlds of blues, soul, funk, rock, and much later, hip-hop.

Regardless of genre or style -- from torrid bebop to gutbucket funk, classical signatures to big-band swing -- Jimmy Smith could play it all. Usually employing a trio of guitar, organ, and drums, Smith modeled his fiery solos after those of horn players, not pianists. He would be called by many the Charlie Parker of the organ, his jackhammer-style and locomotive-sound making bigger bands quiver, audiences go wild, and clubs buy a house organ. From the late '50s through the '60s, he paved the way for what would be called "soul jazz" (or "acid jazz" to its '90s rediscoverers), churning out over 60 albums for Blue Note and Verve -- many which decorated the pop charts -- and thus triggering a Hammond-soaked craze that lasted until the '70s when synthesizers, disco, and urban decay largely put organists out of work.

There isn't an organist post-1956 who wasn't infected by Jimmy Smith; such luminaries as Jimmy McGriff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Booker T, Billy Preston, Shirley Scott, Lonnie Smith, Johnny Hammond Smith, Jack McDuff, Charles Earland, Rhoda Scott, Trudy Pitts, Reuben Wilson, Brian Auger, Steve Winwood, Ronnie Foster, and today's heavyweights, John Medeski and Joey DeFrancesco, are all indebted to him. Furthermore, Michael Jackson knew who to employ on keys for his Bad album and the Beastie Boys -- who loved Smith and his soul-jazz cohorts -- knew who to sample (check their classic cut, "Root Down").

Sadly, the fact Jimmy Smith was barely mentioned in Ken Burns's opus-length documentary on jazz history was more than an oversight (the same can be said of a '97 documentary about Blue Note). Despite their many fans, jazz organists -- particularly those associated with soul-jazz -- drew much ire from a slew of jazz critics, who thought the instrument and its many crossover practitioners had no place in the traditional jazz canon. Ask any older jazz organist still around and they will tell you Hammond players have always been seen as the step-child within the jazz family. However, weeks before his death, Jimmy Smith became the first organist to receive a lifetime Jazz Master achievement award from the National Endowment of the Arts, placing him in the company of giants like Miles, Dizzy, Mingus, and Monk. Rectified, maybe. Put to rest, never. The music of Jimmy Smith was, indeed, like a train, a hurricane, a heart attack. And he was most definitely b-a-d.

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