I absolutely love the sound of a Hammond B-3 Organ. It’s power and richness of sound just blow me away. When hearing one live, it gives me goosebumps when I hear the Leslie rotating speaker whirling in preparation for a huge blast.
No discussion of the instrument would be complete without a look at the great Jimmy Smith.
Jimmy Smith ignited a jazz revolution on an instrument associated at the time with ballparks, despite never playing one until the age of 28.
Not a single album is listed among the 200 most important recordings in the book Essential Jazz Library by New York Times critic Ben Ratcliff. The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD notes “it was disappointing… to hear how quickly Smith’s albums become formulaic.” Rolling Stone calls much of his late career work “substandard.”The joy in building a Smith collection is one can almost always count on his worthwhile albums being fun, fast, and spiritual blues romps with lots of his patented tonal color.
The drawback is… pretty much the same thing.
There’s a sameness to much of his work, and many of his “outside the box” efforts into genres such as fusion and soundtracks are less than stellar. Adding to this discouragement is a number of his best early albums are out of print.
Still, it’s hard to dispute the more than 100 albums in Smith’s discography feature not only a rich collection of commercially popular music, but works of exceptional artistry.
Smith was born in 1928 in Norristown, Pa., near Philadelphia, to a musically inclined family that saw him playing piano and bass as a youth. This combination proved an essential element of his one-man-band approach on the organ. By the time he was 12, Smith was an accomplished stride piano player who won local talent contests, but when his father began having problems with his knee and gave up performing to work as a plasterer, Jimmy quit school after eighth grade and began working odd jobs to help support the family. At 15 He joined the Navy at a to escape his hometown and after World War II returned home, he attended music school on the GI Bill, studying at the Hamilton School of Music and the Ornstein School, both based in Philadelphia. He subsequently played piano for local R&B groups during the 1940s and 50s.
Wild Bill Davis RudyVan Gelder and Alfred Lion
In 1951, Smith began working with his father during the day, but after hearing pioneering organ player Wild Bill Davis, Smith was inspired to switch instruments. Smith bought a Hammond B-3 organ and set up a practice space in a warehouse where he and his father were working; Smith refined the rudiments of his style over the next year (informed more closely by horn players than other keyboard artists, and employing innovative use of the bass pedals and drawbars), and he began playing Philadelphia clubs in 1955. In early 1956, Smith made his New York debut at the legendary Harlem nightspot Small’s Paradise, and Smith was soon spotted by Alfred Lion, who ran the well-respected jazz label Blue Note Records. Lion signed Smith to a record deal, and between popular early albums such as The Incredible Jimmy Smith at Club Baby Grand and The Champ and legendary appearances at New York’s Birdland and the Newport Jazz Festival, Smith became the hottest new name in jazz.
He explains his development on the organ in an oft-quoted interview:
“I got my organ from a loan shark and had it shipped to the warehouse,” he said. “I stayed in that warehouse, I would say, six months to a year. I would do just like the guys do—take my lunch, then I’d go and set down at this beast. Nobody showed my anything, man, so I had to fiddle around with my stops.”
His association with Verve Records beginning in 1962 saw both an expansion and limitation of his work. Among the most successful were a pair of albums recorded with guitarist Wes Montgomery and 1962’s Bashin’: The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith, with “Walk On The Wild Side” from the latter album making pop charts as a single.
However, new formats such as big bands often featured something other than the lengthy blowing sessions best suited to his strength of building up passages over time. Many also sought crossover audiences—toying, for instance, with show tunes and hard rock—and are frequently considered weak points of his discography.
Smith’s struggles continued during the 1970s as synthesizers caused the B-3 to fall out of audience favor. He toured regularly until 1975, when he opened a Los Angeles jazz club with his wife, Lola. Recordings and appearances became infrequent and undistinguished until the early 1980s and, while many subsequent recordings are quality dates, the frequency of new albums continued to be sparse. Later-career highlights include two albums from a 1990 live reunion with Burrell and Turrentine (Fourmost and Fourmost Return), and the live 1999 Incredible! collaboration with DeFrancesco.
However, in the late ’80s, Smith began recording for the Milestone label, cutting several well-reviewed albums that reminded jazz fans Smith was still a master at his instrument, as did a number of live performances with fellow organ virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco. In 1987, producer Quincy Jones invited Smith to play on the sessions for Michael Jackson’s album “Bad”. And found a new generation of fans when hip-hop DJs began sampling his’s funky organ grooves; the Beastie Boys famously used Smith’s “Root Down (And Get It)” for their song “Root Down,” and other Smith performances became the basis for tracks by Nas, Gang Starr, Kool G Rap, and DJ Shadow.
The elder organist, who Miles Davis once proclaimed the “eighth wonder of the world,” also reemerged as a popular performer, including weekly jam sessions with DeFrancesco during the years preceding his death.
In 1995, Smith returned to Verve Records for the album Damn!, and on 2001’s Dot Com Blues, Smith teamed up with a variety of blues and R&B stars, including Etta James, B.B. King, Keb’ Mo’, and Dr. John. In 2004, Smith was honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts; that same year, Smith relocated from Los Angeles to Scottsdale, Arizona. Several months after settling in Scottsdale, Smith’s wife succumbed to cancer, and while he continued to perform and record, Jimmy Smith was found dead in his home less than a year later, on February 8, 2005. His final album, Legacy, was released several months after his passing.
“He had a spirit and a sound that comes across, and there was nothing like it,” DeFrancesco said in a newspaper interview. “He was full of fire and soul, just the complete musician.”
Below are some albums suggestions for the new listener and everyone else who loves the B-3 as much as I do.
Those looking for a good career retrospective might first consider the four-disc Retrospective featuring Blue Note highlights from the 1950s and ’60s. A supplemental, or less expensive alternative, is the two-disc Walk On The Wild Side: The Best Of The Verve Years. An in-depth career-spanning boxed set remains elusive.
Groovin’ At Small’s Paradise (1957)
Perhaps the best of his initial albums currently in release, this live double-CD Blue Note collection with guitarist Eddie McFadden and drummer Donald Bailey plays heavily to Smith’s strengths. There’s a mix of standards, jazz and blues, mostly extended enough in length to allow the organist sufficient room for development. Some early pieces such as “My Funny Valentine” are more restrained than subsequent romps such as the widely acclaimed “After Hours.”
The Sermon (1958)
Another strong early effort in a relatively straight-ahead vein, especially for those looking to hear Smith with a variety of players outside his familiar trio format. Among those on the all-star list are trumpeter Lee Morgan, guitarists Kenny Burrell and Eddie McFadden, alto saxophonists George Coleman and Lou Donaldson, and drummer Art Blakey. A reissued disc adds five tracks to the original three extended-length songs.
Crazy! Baby (1960)
There are two solid positives on this album: 1) he plays with his regular trio of guitarist Quentin Warren and drummer Donald Bailey instead of “name? players and 2) the opportunity, especially for newcomers to his music, to hear him play accessibly and yet with classic flair on familiar tunes such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Makin’ Whoopie.” Not all agree: the Penguin guide calls it “discouragingly rational” and ranks it one of his two worst Blue Note recordings.
Jimmy And Wes: The Dynamic Duo (1966)
Interestingly, a number of critics refer to Smith’s best musical partners providing a subtle Ying to his intense Yang. This big band-aided collaboration is among his most notable, as he and guitarist Wes Montgomery are as mismatched and yet strangely compatible as The Odd Couple, although a few apparent “crowd pleasers” are real clunkers (“Baby It’s Cold Outside” is frequently cited). A second album from the session is The Further Adventures Of Jimmy And Wes.
Root Down (1972)This Verve release is perhaps best-known for the Beastie Boys’ cover of the title track in 1994, but also ranks as one of the strongest entries in Smith’s work for the label. This live performance in Los Angeles is heavy on funk, supported by younger players such as Steve Williams on harmonica, Arthur Adams on guitar and Wilton Felder on bass. Smith’s playing is generally raw and energetic—a refreshing change from arranged big band—especially on cuts such as “For Everyone Under The Sun.”
This Verve release is perhaps best-known for the Beastie Boys’ cover of the title track in 1994, but also ranks as one of the strongest entries in Smith’s work for the label. This live performance in Los Angeles is heavy on funk, supported by younger players such as Steve Williams on harmonica, Arthur Adams on guitar and Wilton Felder on bass. Smith’s playing is generally raw and energetic—a refreshing change from arranged big band—especially on cuts such as “For Everyone Under The Sun.”
Back At The Chicken Shack (1960)
A stellar album, although its rank as the pinnacle of Smith’s discography can be disputed. Smith is in high form on the roaring title track as well as standards such as “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” but his co-players score some of the most notable accomplishments. Tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine delivers what many consider the breakthrough performance of his career and guitarist Kenny Burrell provides a smooth counter presence to the organist’s madness. Both would still be playing with him decades later on some of his best late-career work.
Prayer Meetin’ (1963)
This was Smith’s final Blue Note recording until 1986. It was also the fourth album he recorded in a week as, eager to move to the Verve label, he put out a rush of albums to fulfill his existing contract. Even so, this is a quality work highlighted by Turrentine’s tenor. Items of note include the rare inclusion of a bassist (Sam Jones) and two bonus tracks from the Chicken Shack era (“Lonesome Road” and “Smith Walk”).
This live performance is really more of a Joey DeFrancesco album, with Smith joining the younger organist for the final half of the hour-long set. But hearing the evolution of Smith’s influence through DeFrancesco is reason enough to make this worthwhile, and it’s intriguing to hear their two extended duets evolve into differing compositions (the titles, such as “Medley, No. 1: The Reverend/Yesterdays/ My Romance” are self-explanatory). The results may be audience-pleasing than artistic, but there’s no denying both sound like they’re having fun and generally complimenting each other well, while doing so.