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Jimmy Smith: NEA Jazz Master

By Published: February 10, 2005
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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