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Artist Profiles

Jimmy Smith: NEA Jazz Master

By Published: February 10, 2005
By Pete Fallico

The following documents were submitted to the National Endowment For The Arts by the Jazz Organ Fellowship in early 2004. To the best of our knowledge our efforts were directly responsible for the eventual selection of Jimmy as one of their Jazz Masters for the year 2005.

Jazz Organ Fellowship Document #1

Jimmy Smith became a jazz innovator when, in the mid-fifties, he revolutionized the sound of jazz organ. Heretofore, Wild Bill Davis had been the pied piper who led many a pianist to the organ with his full orchestral sound and big band emulation. It was Jimmy Smith, however, who gave the organ a new soloing voice in much the same way Louis Armstrong gave new life to the trumpet. Born in Norristown, PA on December 8, 1928, Jimmy revealed his musical talent early. His parents both played piano and encouraged him in the boogie-woogie and stride styles of the day. Jimmy made his professional debut at age fourteen in a father/son dance team and joined the navy a year later to serve in WW II. His GI bill helped him attend Ornstein's School of Music in Philadelphia where his undeniable talent was acknowledged. He studied both piano and bass and admired Art Tatum for technique and a myriad of saxophonists for expression. In 1951, Jimmy joined drummer Don Gardner and his Sonotones but soon felt confined as merely a Rhythm and Blues pianist. Fascinated with the organ, he went to see Wild Bill Davis at the Harlem Club in New Jersey. Jimmy began playing in the style of Bill Davis while with Don Gardner but felt compelled to do more. By 1954, he bought his own Hammond organ and placed it in the warehouse where he and his father worked as plasterers. Every day Jimmy would practice his new ideas on the organ, developing horn lines with never before heard registrations. One day he emerged from that warehouse with a truly original sound. His debut at Spider Kelley's Club drew great approval and in 1956, when Jimmy's trio opened at Greenich Village's Café Bohemia, the word quickly got out that this was, in fact, the new sound in jazz organ.

Jimmy's career advanced rapidly as Blue Note recording sessions fueled his notoriety. He literally became the jazz organist to chase as more and more pianists switched to the organ. Jimmy's trio played the Newport Jazz Festival and the Cannes Festival in France. He added more musicians to his recording sessions as the hits began to compile. Back at the Chicken Shack , The Sermon and Midnight Special all became anthems for budding jazz organists to learn. Television captured the Jimmy Smith experience for Philadelphians in 1961. Downbeat magazine voted him their 'Misc Category' winner in 1962 and by 1963, Jimmy was making commercially successful orchestral recordings for Verve Records. His first vocal came in 1966 with "Got My Mojo Working". Jimmy Smith persevered as a musician and mentor to others even when the Hammond organ underwent a decline in popularity, due to the influx of high tech keyboards which were lighter and more manageable.

His sound has captivated audiences all over the world with its raw, soulful groove and continues to inspire younger musicians hoping to create improvisational music on the organ. Although the organ as an instrument has and will undergo transformations through technological advances, it is the original soloing registration introduced by Jimmy Smith that will endure and legitimately lead the way for future jazz organists.

Jazz Organ Fellowship Document #2

I have long since expounded the contributions of Jimmy Smith in the world of jazz and specifically, jazz organ. Jimmy created a new sound for the organ in much the same way that Louis Armstrong created a soloing style for the trumpet. There are even those who have compared Jimmy Smith to Charlie Parker because of the tremendous impact they both have had on their respective instruments. Followers of each always seem to acknowledge whence their fundamental styles came.

The literature is far from complete concerning those who have chosen to play jazz organ. Even the most recent jazz documentaries seem to gloss over the pioneers of jazz organ and the journeymen who forged ahead, seated at the console of the Hammond organ. A quick study of jazz history will reveal the fact that jazz organists have not been adequately mentioned in either ink or represented pictorially or even addressed in the curriculum of our educational institutions.

I have written about the lineage of jazz organ in this country for several years, each time emphasizing the need to treat the pioneers of this genre with respect and dignity. As one might list the innovators of jazz trumpet from its inception, one might also see the passage of musical change through jazz organists as innovative. Thomas 'Fats' Waller, who first applied the basics of stride piano to the organ, shared his knowledge with Bill 'Count' Basie. Bill Davis later felt the organ could be used to create a 'big band sound' for club owners who were no longer able to afford large orchestras. Jimmy Smith ultimately revolutionized the jazz organ sound by changing it to a unique horn-like registration that caught the attention of the world. This jazz organ soloing registration became the standard for any organist to follow and is incorporated in today's most technologically advanced synthesizers. Even the heralded Larry Young first sat and played in the style of Jimmy Smith. Today's most commercially successful proponent of jazz organ, Joey DeFrancesco, publicly credits Jimmy Smith and his perennial success on this instrument.

Most of the jazz organ pioneers are now gone. Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett, Jackie Davis, Milt Buckner, Shirley Scott, Jack McDuff and even Larry Young have all left us without being recognized nationally.

Let us honor Jimmy Smith - the innovator of modern jazz organ - while he is still with us.

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