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Pulling Out All the Stops

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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An early influence was "Wild Bill" Davis, perhaps the best-known organist of his time, who was so mean he once shot a man for snoring. Or am I thinking of Marian McPartland?
If you were to make a list of all of the great jazz musicians to come out of Philadelphia, it would number more than the calories in a cheese steak sandwich. But if you were to narrow it down by instrument, when it came to the organ section, the list would be as short as the line to see Oliver Stone's Alexander.

Though at first glance the list might not look impressive, unless you were to write it in really fancy calligraphy on expensive linen paper, it does contain the name of not only the greatest jazz organist to come out of Philadelphia, but perhaps the greatest jazz organist of all time. And for those of you who may be thinking about e-mailing this article to a friend, please remember to advise them to turn off their oxymoron filters since most anti-spam programs still choke on the phrase "jazz organist."

So then.

James Oscar Smith was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, on December 8, 1925. President Calvin Coolidge was informed of the birth by The Sleeping Prophet, Edgar Cayce, who advised Silent Cal to order watchmaker Laurens Hammond to invent the electronic organ. Coolidge complied, and Hammond soon produced the electric pancreas, followed closely by the Vibro-Colon. Cayce was then called in to clarify his instructions and by 1935, Hammond produced the first of his storied instruments. By this time, Coolidge was out of office and Cayce had fallen from official favor for his ludicrous prediction that the Red Sox would win the World Series in a year when a Howard Hughes movie was both critically acclaimed and atop the box office. Meanwhile, a young Jimmy Smith was still unaware of his destiny.

Somewhere in Dixie, Elvis Presley is born. This doesn't have a damned thing to do with anything, so forget I mentioned it.

By the age of fourteen, Jimmy had left school and was performing with his piano-playing father in a dance team. He quickly realized the negative influence this situation would have on any chance of him ever getting any leg, so he joined the Navy at fifteen because chicks dug the sailor suit. By now it was 1940, the world was at the brink of the deadliest war in human history, and Jimmy was rethinking that whole dance team thing.

Smith finally decided that the honorable thing to do was to stick with it through the course of the war, and stayed in the service until 1947 (he dismissed news of the armistice in 1945 as a practical joke, as it was delivered by a notorious prankster in his unit). Leaving the Navy, he attended Philadelphia's Ornstein's School of Music (formerly, Ornstein's Discount Bagel Hut). There, unaware of the existence of the Hammond organ that had been invented especially for him, he studied piano. He also briefly studied the accordion, but soon realized that there was no future in it for anyone who wasn't whiter than a pierogi.

That said.

In 1951, Smith left music school and joined Don Gardner's Sonotones, an R&B group most famous for the fact that the great Jimmy Smith joined them after he left music school. Smith was still playing piano at this point, but was beginning to experiment with the organ (I know what you're thinking. Stop it). An early influence was "Wild Bill" Davis, perhaps the best-known organist of his time, who was so mean he once shot a man for snoring. Or am I thinking of Marian McPartland? Anyway.


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