Pulling Out All the Stops
“ An early influence was "Wild Bill" Davis, perhaps the best-known organist of his time, who was so mean he once shot a man for snoring. Or am I thinking of Marian McPartland? ”
If you were to make a list of all of the great jazz musicians to come out of Philadelphia, it would number more than the calories in a cheese steak sandwich. But if you were to narrow it down by instrument, when it came to the organ section, the list would be as short as the line to see Oliver Stone's Alexander.
Though at first glance the list might not look impressive, unless you were to write it in really fancy calligraphy on expensive linen paper, it does contain the name of not only the greatest jazz organist to come out of Philadelphia, but perhaps the greatest jazz organist of all time. And for those of you who may be thinking about e-mailing this article to a friend, please remember to advise them to turn off their oxymoron filters since most anti-spam programs still choke on the phrase "jazz organist."
James Oscar Smith was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on December 8, 1925. President Calvin Coolidge was informed of the birth by The Sleeping Prophet, Edgar Cayce, who advised Silent Cal to order watchmaker Laurens Hammond to invent the electronic organ. Coolidge complied, and Hammond soon produced the electric pancreas, followed closely by the Vibro-Colon. Cayce was then called in to clarify his instructions and by 1935, Hammond produced the first of his storied instruments. By this time, Coolidge was out of office and Cayce had fallen from official favor for his ludicrous prediction that the Red Sox would win the World Series in a year when a Howard Hughes movie was both critically acclaimed and atop the box office. Meanwhile, a young Jimmy Smith was still unaware of his destiny.
Somewhere in Dixie, Elvis Presley is born. This doesn't have a damned thing to do with anything, so forget I mentioned it.
By the age of fourteen, Jimmy had left school and was performing with his piano-playing father in a dance team. He quickly realized the negative influence this situation would have on any chance of him ever getting any leg, so he joined the Navy at fifteen because chicks dug the sailor suit. By now it was 1940, the world was at the brink of the deadliest war in human history, and Jimmy was rethinking that whole dance team thing.
Smith finally decided that the honorable thing to do was to stick with it through the course of the war, and stayed in the service until 1947 (he dismissed news of the armistice in 1945 as a practical joke, as it was delivered by a notorious prankster in his unit). Leaving the Navy, he attended Philadelphia's Ornstein's School of Music (formerly, Ornstein's Discount Bagel Hut). There, unaware of the existence of the Hammond organ that had been invented especially for him, he studied piano. He also briefly studied the accordion, but soon realized that there was no future in it for anyone who wasn't whiter than a pierogi.
In 1951, Smith left music school and joined Don Gardner's Sonotones, an R&B group most famous for the fact that the great Jimmy Smith joined them after he left music school. Smith was still playing piano at this point, but was beginning to experiment with the organ (I know what you're thinking. Stop it). An early influence was "Wild Bill" Davis, perhaps the best-known organist of his time, who was so mean he once shot a man for snoring. Or am I thinking of Marian McPartland? Anyway.
The long-awaited convergence of Jimmy Smith and the Hammond organ finally occurred in 1955, when Hammond introduced the legendary B-3 model (named for the winning bingo call that netted Hammond enough cash to complete his masterwork). The unique range of sounds possible with the B-3 opened a new world to Smith, who had always felt constrained by traditional keyboards. Like Earl Hines, who invented the "trumpet style" of piano that relied on single-note lines and preferred arpeggios over chords, Smith's horn player mentality was perfect for the versatile instrument.
Coming into his own, Smith signed with Blue Note records and for a decade created a unique brand of soul-infused jazz that combined blues and gospel influences in a light tarragon cream sauce. Smith influenced not only later jam bands, such as the Allman Brothers, but also a young Emeril Lagasse. The future TV chef turned down a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music (formerly, Cap'n Quint's Clam Shack 'n' Conservatory) after hearing Smith's 1958 album Home Cookin'. It should be stated in no uncertain terms that Smith cannot be held even indirectly culpable for the horrid and (mercifully) short-lived sitcom Emeril or Phish.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch.
Smith's Blue Note recordings produced a phenomenon rarely seen in jazz, the elusive hit single. His accessible style and down-home sensibilities also made jazz palatable for the public at large after the Bop movement had spent much of the fifties leading jazz into the insular realm of the highbrow. Album titles such as Prayer Meetin' and Back at the Chicken Shack sought to return jazz to black audiences, who felt increasingly alienated as the music found itself overwhelmed by waves of lilywhite college types who were yet to discover that it was much easier to get laid on the folk scene with just an acoustic guitar and a working knowledge of as few as four chords.
Leaving Blue Note in the early sixties for the Verve label, Smith explored more lush instrumentation in a big band setting on albums such as The Cat and Peter and the Wolf. Though the albums are today considered jazz classics, music critics at the time felt they diluted Smith's once-potent organ and concerned community leaders felt that the mellow tones might lead to an epidemic of roller-skating teenagers and minor-league hockey games.
Smith left Verve in the early 70's to join Wilt Chamberlain on the pro volleyball circuit. Realizing quickly that the term "pro volleyball" was even more of an oxymoron than "jazz organist," and less likely to pay off in any meaningful amount, Smith returned to jazz. Confined largely to labels like Decca and Elektra, which were more interested in promoting pop and rock (and the brief Pop Rocks candy craze), his recording output stemmed to a mere trickle. Still, Smith remained a vital and electrifying live performer and continued to do well on the club circuit. I had a "club sandwich" gag planned to go here, but was forced to abandon it due to a shortage of those long toothpicks with cellophane crinkles on the end (which are known in the industry as a "club frill." And I personally guarantee you won't find a more useless fact on AAJ).
Smith would experience a renaissance of sorts in the late eighties, when the emerging acid jazz scene heavily sampled his work from the fifties and sixties as they discovered innovative ways to be jazz musicians without actually having to learn to play an instrument. The resurrected Verve label quickly resigned Jimmy, first making the 70 year-old master sign a "no volleyball" agreement, then released 1995's exceptional Damn! Smith would record several more albums for Verve, leaving the label in 2001 to pursue his professional lacrosse career. No need to ask how that turned out.
As rare as a jazz organist is, it is perhaps rarer that an artist of Smith's caliber remains vital and productive right up to the very end. Even to his death on February 8, Smith remained active and was still very much involved in music. Recent efforts like Dot Com Blues showed a dynamic artist still involved in the creation of new and vital sounds. The just-released Legacy , a collaboration with fellow Philadelphian and current jazz organ titleholder Joey DeFrancesco (who holds the NEA and JALC belts, and is the number one contender for the vacant AAJ crown), reveals Smith was still very much in command of his organ. And just this once, I'll let you go ahead and enjoy your own private "organ" gag you've been giggling about since this piece began.
Till next month, kids, exit to your right and enjoy the rest of AAJ.