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Dr. Lonnie Smith: But Beautiful

By Published: October 22, 2012
AAJ: Did you ever get the opportunity to play with Billy Butler
Billy Butler

DLS: I surely didn't. Once I had Melvin, and after I had played with George (Benson), that was pretty hard, to choose someone after him. When George and I were playing, he got signed to Columbia and so did I, at the same time. We were at a place called The Palm Café at 125th and 7th Avenue and John Hammond heard about it and came up. Him and his wife-you know, he was married to one of the Vanderbilts.

Lou Donaldson, that's the guy who got us-me and George-to be really heard, as far as I'm concerned. When Lou Donaldson needed someone, he called us and we went in and recorded Alligator Boogaloo with Idris Muhammad
Idris Muhammad
Idris Muhammad
. That group felt so good when we played.

Duke Pearson
Duke Pearson
Duke Pearson
and Francis Wolff from Blue Note called me and said, "We think they want you over here." Once I went there, I made a hit record (Think!), the record took off but I didn't have a group! I was playing with George Benson. But the record took off, so people were calling me to do headlining concerts and I didn't have a group. I used to take George on some of those engagements because I didn't have a group. That's when I got Melvin.

AAJ: What do you like to remember most about saxophonist Lou Donaldson?

DLS: I don't have to tell you that he's the greatest, his embouchure and everything. If you want to hear some beautiful alto playing, he still plays just like he's a young kid. Your embouchure will go after a certain age, you can't quite keep it together, but the way he plays is unbelievable.

And I enjoyed playing with Lou. We enjoyed each other. Every night we were playing, we would go home and it felt great. We went out on the road, we used to travel from the East Coast to the West Coast, up and down the highway, we would walk together, we would go eat together, we were like family. We still talk: A few days ago I talked to him and I will talk to him again in another day or two. He comes down here to Florida and we'll go eat and we're still very close. Very close. Just like me and George-we're still close. But Lou, he's a beautiful person and not only that, he has helped a lot of organists. To this day, when I go to Europe or he goes to Europe, we're asked to play "Alligator Boogaloo."

AAJ: And what do you like to remember most about trumpeter Lee Morgan?

DLS: Another great musician. Not to mention that Lee Morgan was born in the same month as me, in July. Some people play and they don't have life in their playing-they play, but that's about it. But when he played, you felt him. You felt him exactly because he was a lot of fun and happy, joyous, and that beauty came out in his playing. Plus, he could play so it was beautiful! Beautiful! So, I mean, I really miss those days. I really do.

AAJ: It's not just that the music business is different-the world is so different now.

DLS: It's different. It's different. It's definitely different. And I think what happens is, if people played life instead of just notes all the time, you'd be better off. You have to play life.

AAJ: Foxy Lady, your trio Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
tribute record, represents yet another aspect of your music. What do you like to remember about those sessions?

DLS: With Marvin "Smitty" Smith and John Abercrombie: That particular project was brought to my attention by another young fellow, Todd Barkan, who used to operate the Keystone Korner in Oakland many years ago, and now he's at Dizzy's at Lincoln Center. Todd has done a lot of great work. So, when this came, it was perfect. I love Jimi's music too, worked for me, anyway. It really worked.

AAJ: It seems like a very different kind of trio sound for you.

DLS: I had fun doing it, also, I really had fun. You know, the hardest part, I have to tell you, is...if you know Jimi Hendrix, if you know his singing, you know, Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
and people like that, when they sing, it's almost like talking, almost like a talking tone. So you have to kind of hear your way, and make it yours.

AAJ: "Pilgrimage" is the name of a song on your new album and the name of your record label too, so this word or concept is obviously important to you. What does "pilgrimage" mean to you?

DLS: It means a lot to me. It's like all the people are coming together, going to one place, all the people, all over the world, that's what it means to me. Coming from every form, every religion, every part of their being, we're all going to that one place. We're different but we're not different. We're going for the same common denominator, coming together for that one particular thing. Just being together.

AAJ: That's the kind of thing that leads people to say that there's a very spiritual aspect to the way that you present your music.

DLS: Well, thank you.

AAJ: Musicians often learn a lot about themselves through their music. But what have you learned about yourself from starting up your own record company?

DLS: What I have learned is something that I feel. I feel a lot of freedom. Basically, there's a lot of stuff in the can that I wish had come out. A lot of friends have said to me, "You have old songs that people haven't heard. They're really nice." That's right, and people can't get them. So, I'm working on that-it's called In the Beginning. So I put out The Healer first, and I'm working on the other one. It all goes hand in hand. Young people are enjoying the old music which they didn't hear, because they always ask me about it. They can't buy it, they can't find it, so they have a chance to do that now.

I feel that, from the beginning, playing music is something that I didn't choose to do. It chose me. I feel, when I sit down at the keyboard sometimes-I play by ear-I feel that I am a man who was here before who didn't finish what he was put here to do, and if I should pass, I will return to complete my work. I'll keep on coming back and doing the same thing until I get it right.

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