Barbara Dennerlein: A Study in Contrasts

Alan Bryson By

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Meeting Jimmy Smith

AAJ: You also met Jimmy Smith for the first time when you were fifteen.

BD: It was an organ competition, and actually I was a little bit angry, because the other organ players didn't play very well, but they played commercial music and that's what the people liked, and I played jazz music. So I came in second place. At the end everyone had to play one song again. And my father told me this because I had forgotten it, but I had asked Jimmy Smith if he would play with me, and understandably he said no. The first place player did the same song again, "Oh Carol," and I sat down and played something different, "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and suddenly I noticed someone came from behind me and he took my hair, I had very long hair, much longer than now, and he put it to the side, and then he sat down and he played with me. [laughs] So really, it was great.

AAJ: And you weren't expecting it at all?

BD: No, it was incredible of course, wonderful. And then people were so shocked about their decision—he played with me, the second place finalist. The third place finalist didn't even play again after that! [laughs] It was really funny, and afterwards we stayed in contact. And it was really nice, until he started to see me as a competitor.

Dennerlein and Jimmy Smith

AAJ: But you did stay in touch, when he was in Germany he called?

BD: We met up from time to time and I came when he played. When he was in Munich my Mom would drive us around. I remember once he was hungry and we stopped at a restaurant to eat, and he says, "Hello, I'm the famous Jimmy Smith, the world's greatest organ player, and I want my food very quickly!" Or it was something like that.

AAJ: [Laughs] And do you do that now in Germany?

BD: No, I'm a different personality type. [laughs]

AAJ: When you were twenty-two [1986] you recorded an outstanding LP with a big band entitled Tribute to Charlie [Parker] (Koala, 1987), and less than two years after that you were booked on Jazz Club [a popular German television program at the time] with Jimmy Smith. Suddenly the young girl he sat next to on the bench was appearing with him on the same show before a national audience.

You played Dizzy's "Night in Tunisia" with some really hot pedal work, a song Jimmy Smith had also recorded. I'm curious how things went backstage—For example, did he see you playing during the sound check, and did you talk?

BD: Yeah, I mean I didn't see him, but I'm sure he did. The story is, we were supposed to play together. I remember that very well, it was in Leonberg, fine weather, it was very nice—and he didn't talk to me. And I thought, well, we're playing in two hours, we should talk about what we are going to play. And then I met him in the hallway, and I said, "Hello! We're supposed to play together, should we talk about what we're going to play?" I said that to him and I've never seen someone getting such an angry face. And he was shivering [enraged] and says "What, you and me playing together, never. They don't pay me enough!" Really, those were his words, really angry.

So I'm thinking, "Whoops what's going on here," so then I went to the director and I said, "I just talked to Jimmy Smith and he's not going to play with me, maybe you should clear up the situation. I just tried to ask him what we are going to play—whatever," later he [the director] came and said, "Well if he would do it now would you still play with him?" And I said, "Well, you know of course I'm not happy about it, because I know from this reaction that we won't be playing with each other, this will be a playing against each other, a competition," and that's one thing I hate. I really hate to be on stage with people in that situation, trying to one-up each other, everyone tries to play quicker and louder to get the audience's attention, I hate that, I want to make music. But I said, "Okay, I mean, if you want me to do it, I will, but I'm not happy about it." And later he [the director] came and told me he wouldn't do it anyway.

And then, the thing is originally, Jimmy Smith was there with his quartet, and the show wanted to have me there solo, they thought I should play with Jimmy Smith's musicians. And I said in advance of that concert, I think this isn't a fair situation, because this is the band Jimmy Smith is playing with and they know each other and know the music, and you want me to play on the same show with musicians I don't know. At least I think I should have my drummer who knows my songs.

And in the end I was able to bring my drummer, and this was something which saved me you know, because then Jimmy Smith didn't allow his musicians to talk to me or to play with me. I remember sitting outside with his musicians and they were very, very nice and we were talking and we had fun, and then Jimmy Smith came out in the garden where we were sitting and immediately, you know, they stopped talking.

AAJ: It's strange, before that, the last time you saw each other you were friendly?

Barbara DennerleinBD: Yeah, I don't know, I remember one concert where I played in Munich and he [Jimmy Smith] told my father he should not tell me that he was there. And he stood behind a column. And he was very nice. And then suddenly at that ZDF Jazz Club—and I think he really heard me play that night, and maybe in a way that caused the shift. I was disappointed of course, but on the other hand I thought maybe I can understand him a little bit.

I try to see the other person's side. I think that because generations of organ players have copied Jimmy Smith, maybe this affects someone's thinking, you know what I mean, because it's a fact, almost all organ players copy Jimmy Smith. A few, like Larry Young, had their own style, but for the most part, it's always—Jimmy Smith is the greatest and I want to play like Jimmy Smith. Now don't get me wrong, of course he is fantastic, but why should everyone play like Jimmy Smith, that's boring.

AAJ: It's like if everyone tried to play sax like Charlie Parker...

BD: Yeah, or trumpet like Miles, whatever...

AAJ: Anything else you remember about him pre-Jazz Club?

BD: Sure, it was fun to be with him, he was a funny person in a positive sense. He had a great sense of humor and we laughed a lot. I mean I really liked that. But there's no particular story, I mean the problem is I've forgotten a lot, you know in my life so many things happen, and you can't remember it all.

AAJ: Help me to understand. From looking at videos it appears that on slow numbers Jimmy Smith played the bass on pedals, but on up tempo numbers he used his left hand and hit occasional notes on the pedals for emphasis. Is that basically true?

BD: That's exactly the point, and many of the older organ players played left-handed bass and they just hit the pedal bass, not for the note, but for the attack, the accent you know, but the notes were played with the left hand and the pedals were more of a rhythmic thing, you know like, "tuk tuk," maybe on slow songs he hit the note longer to emphasize the tone, but actually he didn't really play pedals.

AAJ: In terms of complex lines?

BD: Yes. So no, not really. Anyway, there are very few people who really play bass lines with their feet. On the other hand, it's really astonishing I think, because if you think of the classical organ, no classical organist would have any chance of success if he or she couldn't play the bass pedals. But in pop music, or jazz music, or rock music, people cut the organ to pieces and they just use the keyboard.


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