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Dr. Lonnie Smith: Organ Guru

Mikayla Gilbreath By

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The young players, as long as they're playing from the heart and really meaning it, ...they can take [jazz] and keep it going on. —Dr. Lonnie Smith
[Editor's Note: Mikayla's Totally Jazzed is a new column that will feature artist interviews and thoughts on jazz by saxophonist/student Mikayla Gilbreath. Despite her young age, she's managed to connect with a surprising number of well-known musicians, hosting a pre-concert reception at Sonny Rollins' 50th Anniversary Carnegie Hall Concert in 2007 that was attended by artists including Jimmy Heath, Lou Donaldson, Paquito D' Rivera, Joe Lovano, David Liebman, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Marion Meadows. At fourteen she's already a confirmed jazz lover and surprisingly accomplished musician, and while one goal of this column is to reach out to youth and help them connect with the music she loves, Mikayla's writing and fresh perspective will appeal to jazz fans of all ages.]

Dr. Lonnie SmithOkay, let's start this off with a brief word association test. I'll give you a word, and you respond with the first thing that comes to mind. The first word is "music." Hopefully, most of you thought of "jazz" since that's why you're here—to read about jazz and the musicians that play it.

Alright, that was easy enough. Let's move on. The next word in this test is "organ." I assume the first word that came to mind for many of you was "donor." Nice job! You should be congratulated. But that's not quite what I was going for on this one. Some of you probably thought of the word "church." Those of you who did obviously made the connection between "organ" and music. And veteran jazz enthusiasts may have even made a connection between "organ" and the Hammond B-3, which is exactly what I was hoping for. But it's likely that many younger jazz fans have never even had the pleasure of hearing the Hammond B-3 organ used to play jazz.

In the mid-1970s, interest in the bulky electro-mechanical organ as a jazz instrument began to wane, while attention was being redirected toward the Moog and other more portable electronic synthesizers. Likewise, interest in the music of the jazz organ masters of the day, such as Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Jimmy McGriff, seemed to diminish as well. And although the use of versatile and light-weight electronic keyboards spread quickly, the electronics industry seemed incapable of developing one which could reproduce the rich, warm sound of the Hammond B-3 (which had long been considered the "gold standard" for jazz keyboards). Perhaps as a result of that inability, during the past decade there has been a resurgence in interest not only in the Hammond B-3, but also in the artists talented enough to take full advantage of the B-3's extraordinary capabilities.

Many would agree that the number of truly gifted jazz organists now performing can be counted on one hand. Certainly that short list would include the exceptional father and son duo of "Papa" John and Joey DeFrancesco. But there is also another B-3 virtuoso who is an obvious choice for inclusion on that list; one whose affinity for the organ began more than forty years ago. His name? Dr. Lonnie Smith, the turban-clad guru of the Hammond B-3 organ, whose talent and enigmatic persona make him a true standout in the world of jazz. For nearly two generations, Smith's music has been enjoyed worldwide and has inspired countless young jazz musicians.

Smith was born on July 3, 1942, in Lackawanna, New York. His earliest years were spent listening to his family sing gospel and spiritual music. "My parents sang, my mother, her mother, her sisters, her brothers, my cousins." Smith himself started as a vocalist before he gained fame as an organist.

Dr. Lonnie Smith

Although he is now an extraordinary jazz organist, there was a time, of course, when he knew nothing at all about it. I asked him how he first got interested in playing musical instruments. "I used to look at catalogues as a young kid," he said. "And I used to love to look at the musical instruments, the guitars and things like that." In school, he was assigned to a home room which was held in a music classroom. "Everyone in there, practically, played an instrument. And I didn't! So one day, I picked up my friend's trumpet. I picked up his trumpet and played it before the bell rang. And they couldn't believe it!"

Smith was promptly taken down to the band room where he was introduced to the band teacher. "And he said 'Yes. ...What would you like?' And I said 'I'd love to play an instrument.' He said 'Well, what would you like to play?' I said 'Saxophone.' And he said 'They're all rented out.'"

Smith was quite disappointed, because he knew that his mother (a huge musical influence upon him) loved the saxophone. But then the band teacher offered him a cornet to play. "And I picked that up, and ...I played it." So what happened, on the first day I went to band practice ...I played the song and he thought that was kind of excellent for a newcomer, [who had] never played an instrument. So I went back the second day and he said 'Looks like we have a star in here.' And he put me in the band.


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