Jimmy Smith: 1928–2005

We were saddened to learn that the great jazz organist Jimmy Smith died in his sleep on February 8. He was 76.

On January 7 this year, Smith was designated a National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master, although, in truth, the NEA lagged severely behind legions of fans when it acknowledged Smith's musical mastery.

A few jazz musicians played the organ before Jimmy Smith—Fats Waller and Count Basie, for example—but the way Smith played, it sounded as though he had invented the instrument. In a way, he had. Smith played the Hammond B3 like no one before him. He played walking (sometimes galloping) bass lines on the pedals, created chords with his mighty left hand, and took off on solo flights with his right. He was an entire group on a single instrument, and he had an understanding of the tonal and rhythmic possibilities of the Hammond B3 that established its jazz signature as somewhere between the church and a raunchy gut-bucket dive—a lot closer to the bar than the pulpit, if truth be known.

His style was composed of equal parts R&B drive and sophisticated bebop melodic flights, but it was always hard-driving and propulsive. In 1952, Smith was a jazz pianist working in the Philadelphia area. He met Wild Bill Davis, who is credited with creating the organ, guitar, and drums combination that Smith later perfected, and Smith asked the older musician how long it would take him to learn to play the organ. Every time I've heard this story (including several versions in interviews with Smith), the number of years has varied, although it averaged around a decade. By 1955, it was hard to imagine the organ trio before Jimmy Smith.

In 1956, Smith began a series of some 28 recordings for Rudy Van Gelder and Blue Note Records that set the standard for hard swinging, deep groove, churchified funk. Among the stand-outs are Home Cookin', The Sermon, Midnight Special, Prayer Meetin', and Back at the Chicken Shack. His string of pearls continued with records at Verve, including Organ Grinder Swing and Got My Mojo Workin', on which he also sang. His Dot Com Blues on Verve was Stereophile's April 2001 Record of the Month.

In his review of that record, Zan Stewart commented that, after "more than 65 albums, some great, some forgettable, . . . Dot Com Blues rides the top of a crest." That's leaving on a high note, but I'll go Stewart one better: Whenever I want to cheer myself up or jump start a party, I pull out a Jimmy Smith album, any Jimmy Smith album. If that won't do it, it can't be done.

Thank heavens he left us so much to work with.