The Hammond Jazz Legend
Step back in time to the mid 1950s. Outside of its traditional home in church, the organ rarely received good press. For years its public image had it pitched somewhere between the rinky-dink of the ice rinks and a wheezing monstrosity. As a jazz instrument it appeared to have no foreseeable future. Overall, it was cumbersome and possessed a tone that conjured up images of funeral parlours and radio evangelism. Slowly, however, things were changing. In many churches, the gospel preached was one genuinely aimed at uplifting souls.
With most black musicians coming from such a background, it seemed only natural that such influences would eventually surface in popular music. One man almost singlehandedly created a whole new role in jazz for the previously shunned electric organ. That man was Jimmy Smith.
James Oscar Smith was born in Pennsylvania on December 8th, 1925. His parents played piano and were influential in his youthful attraction to the instrument. His competitive spirit was in evidence from an early age when, aged 9, he played boogie woogie at the nationally-broadcast "Amateur Hour" show. Smith later said of the event: "I went there to blow everyone away. I've had this attitude since I found out I could play." He won the show.
After serving in the US Navy, he began to study music formally in Philadelphia. Smith studied string bass at the Hamilton School of Music and piano at the Ornstein School. He then began playing professionally in R & B groups.
Former pianists 'Wild' Bill Davis and Bill Doggatt both played Hammond in Louis Jordan's band and inspired many other pianists to change over to the organ. Jimmy began paying a local Hammond dealer $1 an hour to practice on the instrument.
It was an encounter with Davis that brought out Smith's competitive instinct and made him determined to master the instrument. Davis told him that mastering the organ was a big job, and that just learning the foot pedals would take four years. Jimmy took this
statement as a challenge. He bought his own Hammond, put it in a warehouse and began a regular practice regime.
It was in that warehouse that Smith began to develop his most important contributions to the jazz organ. He brought modern jazz values to the instrument. He was one of the bebop generation, just one year younger than the influential pianist Bud Powell. Powell had stressed right hand virtuosity and set a standard for technical exploitation of the keyboard. Smith brought a ferocious intensity to both his right hand soloing and his left hand work.
He thoroughly approached the mechanics of the organ, and their effects upon the sound. Smith explored the many combinations of sound made possible by the Hammond's drawbars. This knowledge allowed him to demonstrate a much wider sonic range for the organ than had previously been revealed. When he finally emerged from his warehouse, Smith had created a lasting blueprint for organ-group instrumentation. He chose a trio format, accompanied by electric guitar and drums. With Smith playing a bass line with his feet, this tiny ensemble could produce a sound that was not only musically complete but also full enough to be heard in the liveliest nightclub.
Jimmy's musical inventiveness and command of the Hammond made believers out of sceptics, who had previously viewed the organ as more of a novelty instrument than a fully expressive jazz tool.
His many recordings fall into two distinct camps. One was the small combo (mostly trios and quartets) which he was accustomed to from his nightclub work. The other setting, however, placed him in the midst of a modern jazz big band. The Hammond by itself is capable of much of the power and variety of tone associated with the instruments of a big band.
How did his unique approach to the organ fit in?
On most of the recordings, Jimmy's arrangers had the wind section take the melody and then let him come in to solo. Only occasionally was he asked to play the melody. Of his many arrangers, Oliver Nelson in particular recognized the power of the Hammond. No matter how full a sound he wrote for the band, there was no danger of this soloist being drowned out. And when he chose to pit the band against the organ, the results were electrifying.
(Check out Smith's recording of Walk On The Wild Side.)
Jimmy also recorded two albums with master arranger Lab Schifrin, the first in the 1960s on Hammond, and a second, less successful, in the 1980s with Smith playing a Wersi organ. The earlier album provides some of the best examples of Smith working in a big band context, with the stunning title track 'The Cat' being one of his best-known recordings.
After a brief flirtation in the 1980s with another make of organ, synthesizers and even electric piano, Smith returned decisively to the Hammond. His continuing production of CDS and his live appearances show a strong commitment to the values of bebop, jazz and the blues that were formed so strongly during those long months in that Philadelphia warehouse. This commitment, together with the undoubted influence that Smith has had on two generations of jazz organists, must surely earn him a place in the ranks of the Hammond jazz legends.
Read the article "Incredible!"
Written by Jimmy Smith for Hammond Times
Volume 26 Number 2 (July-August 1964)