Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images/Corbis
Jimmy Smith recorded more than 40 sessions in under seven years for Blue Note Records — just as a leader.
Once described as an "excitement merchant" for his soul-stirring sound, Jimmy Smith brought the Hammond B-3 organ to the forefront of the jazz community. The virtuosic keyboard man was the first to use the unwieldy instrument extensively in jazz, leading bassless trios, fronting powerful big bands and pioneering a path for every organist who followed.
James Oscar Smith was born outside of Philadelphia, Pa., to a mother who played the organ in a local church and a father who was a tap dancer by night. Smith joined his father's act at an early age, and also learned to play stride piano. At 15, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he played piano and bass in the segregated military band. After a couple of years in the service, Smith moved back to Philadelphia, where he attended music school on the G.I. Bill, played piano in local groups and worked construction and railway jobs to make ends meet.
It wasn't until he saw early keyboard master and arranger Wild Bill Davis perform on the electric organ — then a novelty instrument — that Smith decided to pursue a musical career. Soon after that night, Smith bought a Hammond B-3 organ and a big speaker, and taught himself the instrument through near-constant practice in an old warehouse. Within a few months, he was fluent; after a few years, he had fleshed out a style enriched by energetic bebop, blues and the sound of the church.
By using his foot pedals to create bass lines, Smith was able to use the organ to fill multiple roles within a jazz rhythm section. It quickly won him acclaim: By the end of 1956, he had made his debut in New York and signed a record deal with the Blue Note label. He began his recording career with a trio album called A New Sound, A New Star, and by the end of the decade he was the busiest and most prolific artist on the Blue Note roster.
In 1962, after six years with Blue Note, Smith signed with Verve Records, where he began working with larger ensembles. He collaborated with arrangers such as Oliver Nelson and Lalo Schifrin, using their ambitious orchestrations as a backdrop to his soloing. He also worked with legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery on a number of projects — their music together was filled with so much gusto that the two were billed as the "Dynamic Duo."
During the '70s and early '80s, organ-driven jazz lost popularity with audiences. Smith largely stopped touring and recording, and opened up a nightclub in Los Angeles with his wife Lola. Eventually, Smith returned to the studio for infrequent but still affecting recordings, bolstered by a revival of interest in the Hammond B-3 organ sound among younger artists.
After creating a massive discography spanning nearly 50 years, Jimmy Smith died in 2005 at his home in Arizona. But his soulful, rhythmic and thunderous sound on the Hammond B-3 organ had long since paved a way for new generations of jazz organists.
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Link to NPR's Basic Jazz Record Library:
Jimmy Smith: 'The Sermon'