The Great Lonnie Liston Smith is one of contemporary music’s most versatile musicians. In a career that spans some 40 years, he has been heard in a variety of context as a featured sideman for some of Jazz music’s most illustrious leaders before stepping out to reveal his own original concepts as a bandleader in the mid 70’s. He is a keyboardist of the first rank and has influenced a generation of young players that have acknowledged his rhythmic urgency (swing), harmonic acumen and composing skills.
Lonnie was born in Richmond, Virginia into a musical family. His father was a member of the Gospel Group, “The Harmonizing Four”. In 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt invited “The Harmonizing Four” to sing at the White House following the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lonnie remembers such gospel groups as “The Dixie Humming Birds” and “The Soul Stirrers” with Sam Cooke, being frequent visitors at his family’s home.
There was a piano in the house and he began investigating it before formal instructions a few years later. It was during high school that Lonnie became infatuated with modern Jazz through hearing alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, one of the creative geniuses in music. It was not long before he was listening to Miles Davis (a future employer) and John Coltrane. Lonnie also began listening to great pianist geniuses, such as: Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Earl “Father” Hines, Erroll Garner and the many other piano geniuses.
After graduating from Armstrong High School, Lonnie entered Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he majored in music education and earned his B.S. degree. While attending Morgan State University, Lonnie became a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity and also a member of the music fraternity, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia.
Lonnie began performing in the Baltimore area where he became adept at backing vocalists such as Ethel Ennis and visiting dignitaries like Betty Carter. While attending Morgan State University, he began performing with his peers, Gary Bartz (alto saxophonist), Grachan Moncur (trombonist), and Mickey Bass (on upright bass). After college, Lonnie moved to New York City and began performing with the top vocalists, such as, Betty Carter and Joe Williams. Soon after, Lonnie joined Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers and after The Jazz Messengers, he got a call to perform with drummer, Max Roach, which was unusual because Max rarely used a pianist in his ensemble. Unfortunately, his year with Roach was not documented on vinyl, but these gigs did elevate his status as one of the up and coming players on the scene. He then enjoyed a 2 year stay with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and recorded 2 records with Rahsaan entitled, “Please Don’t Cry Beautiful Edith” on Verve Records and “Here Comes the Whistleman” on Atlantic Records.