Pulling Out All the Stops
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.