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Bill Milkowski: Rockers, Jazzbos & Visionaries

By Published: February 9, 2005
Excerpt: Interview with Jimmy Smith

I conducted this interview for Jazz Times (February '95 issue) on the phone from New Orleans. Jimmy was back home in California, no doubt watching cowboy movies on tv, a favorite pasttime of his. Our conversation was freewheeling and hilarious, and after it was over I realized that I had maybe five or six minutes of useable material. He did talk about the development of his trademark Hammond B-3 organ style and his current recording but the rest was a kind of stream of consciousness monologue that ran its own course. I remember thinking at one point during the interview, "This cat should be doing standup comedy albums." He was in that great X rated party humor tradition of Red Foxx, Rudy Ray Moore and Robin Harris...a born entertainer. At the end of our chat, I mentioned to Jimmy that I had just polished off a catfish dinner at my favorite New Orleans restaurant, Uglesich's. "Catfish? Ooooh, you dirty dog!" he moaned with envy. When I went on to describe the dish — chef Anthony's popular Muddy Waters catfish topped with jalapeno peppers and garlic — Jimmy made an unusual proposition. "I'll tell you time I come to New Orleans, I think I might suck your dick if you treat me to some catfish." Unfortunately, I moved from New Orleans the following year and never had the opportunity to follow up on Jimmy's generous offer.

He is now and has been for the past four decades the king of the hill, the baddest of the bad, the undisputed heavyweight champion of the Hammond B-3 organ. When Jimmy Smith jumps on an up-tempo groove and lets his right hand fly or when he digs deep into a greasy blues with real-deal intensity, practitioners and connoisseurs alike can only sit back in utter amazement, shake their heads in disbelief and mutter...Damn! , which also happens to be the title of his latest Verve release.

An all-out blowing session, Damn! confirms Jimmy Smith's status in the B-3 world; still the organist that everyone is chasing. For this fiery session, Smith's inimitable B-3 burn is highlighted alongside some of the hottest young horn players on the scene today. Challenged by Young Lions like guitarist Mark Whitfield, trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Nicholas Payton, saxophonists Tim Warfield, Mark Turner, Ron Blake and Abraham Burton, Jimmy rises to the occasion and wails with abandon. Teeming with energy, Damn! harkens back to Jimmy's landmark date from 38 years ago with a young Kenny Burrell, Lou Donaldson, Hank Mobley and Donald Byrd, recently compiled and released by Mosaic Records as a three-cd boxed set entitled The Complete February 1957 Jimmy Smith Blue Note Sessions. The same intensity prevails.

From funky throwdowns like James Brown's "Papa's Got A Brand New Bag," Horace Silver's "Sister Sadie" and Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" to scorching bop anthems like Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody 'N' You" and Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From The Apple," the entire session is marked by scintillating interplay. Anchored by bassist Christian McBride and drummers Bernard Purdie and Arthur Taylor (in his last recorded performance), Jimmy drives the session from behind his hulking B-3 like a seasoned quarterback taking his team downfield for a last minute touchdown in the Super Bowl. Simply put, the sparks fly on Damn!

James Oscar Smith was born on December 8, 1928 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Both of his parents were pianists and his father was Jimmy's primary teacher. At the age of nine, he won first place in a Major Bowes Amateur Hour contest playing boogie woogie piano. At the age of 12, he teamed with his father in a song and dance act, performing at various clubs and on radio shows in and around Philadelphia. Following a stint in the Navy, he used the GI bill to attend Ornstein's School of Music, where he studied bass and piano. It was in 1951, while playing in Don Gardner's Sonotones, that he became interested in organ. Soon after acquiring a Hammond B-3 organ, he went into a self-imposed period of intensive woodshedding that lasted nearly a year.

Since the release of his 1956 Blue Note debut, A New Sound...A New Star...Jimmy Smith At The Organ, Vol. 1 , few organists have received as much attention. A perennial poll winner since the late '50s, Smith redefined the cumbersome instrument while opening a new door in the process for generations of players to come. As the late Leonard Feather wrote in his Encyclopedia Of Jazz : "The first attempt to bring the organ into the orbit of contemporary jazz was undertaken by Jimmy Smith, an extraordinary musician who makes fuller use than other jazz organists of the variety of stops at his dispoal. Smith plays fast tempo jazz improvisations in a style that would have blended perfectly with Charlie Parker's combo, had Smith risen to prominence during Parker's lifetime."

With swagger and sass, Jimmy took the cumbersome 400-pound instrument to a new level beyond where B-3 pioneers like Milt Buckner, Bill Doggett and Wild Bill Davis had gone before him. Smith's new sound utilized the first three draw bars and the percussion feature of the Hammond B-3. He also cut the tremelo off and began playing fluid horn-like lines with his right hand, inspired by players like Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas and Arnett Cobb. As he once explained, "I copped my solos from horn players. I don't listen to keyboard players. I can't get what I want from keyboard players," although he also admits that Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Erroll Garner were important influences.

Jimmy, in turn, has influenced generations of musicians. His inspiration has been acknowledged by countless other organists including Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Booker T, Billy Preston, Larry Young, Lonnie Smith, Richard Groove Holmes, Georgie Fame, Joey DeFrancesco, Barbara Dennerlein and John Medeski. His continuing influence is reflected in today's acid jazz scene via sampling by groups like the hugely popular Us3, who regard Jimmy Smith as the godfather of soul-jazz.

Perhaps Clive Davis of The London Times put it best when he wrote: "Smith continues to extract an awesome degree of power from his keyboard. The slick walking bass lines laid down by the pedals and the cluster bomb explosions of blue notes from his right hand have been copied by admirers across the generations. His ability to build to a dramatic gospel climax remains undiminished."

That testimony rings true on Damn!

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