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The Gospel of Root-Down: Organist Jimmy Smith

Steven Wishnia Feb 16, 2007

Legendary jazz organist Jimmy Smith, who died in February after a career spanning more than 50 years, did for the electric organ what Charlie Christian did for the electric guitar: He introduced it to popular music and defined its basic vocabulary.

Smith, born outside Philadelphia in 1928, started out as a pianist, playing with small combos – one of which included a young sax player named John Coltrane – in the bars and clubs of Philadelphia’s Black neighborhoods in the late 1940s. Signed to the Blue Note label in 1956, he was phenomenally prolific, recording more than 30 albums in the next six years – all either live or live in the studio.

That quickly established him as a jazz star, with tracks like “The Champ,” his first hit; “The Sermon,” a 20-minute workout; and “Back at the Chicken Shack,” a reworked 1948 jump-blues song. Smith drew from an astonishing range of music – jazz standards and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” “Peter and the Wolf” and “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” – but a typical tune would find him patting a gently throbbing walking bass line on the instrument’s pedals, while playing visceral, swinging blues, gospel and bebop licks on the keys, topping it off with rolling, tumbling trills and long, screaming high notes. He usually worked with an organ-guitardrums- sax quartet, recording with the likes of drummer Art Blakey, guitarists Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery, and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine. In one landmark 1960 session, he cut two albums in one day.

Those records became part of the soundtrack for clubbing, chilling and partying in both the jazz world – much more a part of popular and bohemian culture in the ‘50s than it is now – and in urban Black America. They also established the electric organ as a crucial instrument in jazz, rock, blues and especially the gospel-soaked sounds of ‘60s soul. Smith didn’t get much critical acclaim, though. In an era when Coltrane and Miles Davis were becoming revered icons, his music was often dismissed as commercial “soul-jazz.” He recorded less often after 1970, as jazz declined in popularity and the electric piano and synthesizer eclipsed the organ, but he experienced a revival in the ‘90s. He died a week before his last album came out.

Jimmy Smith was a supremely innovative and soulful musician who grew out of grassroots culture. Struggling against oppression is essential, but it can’t sustain your spirit the way a strong community and culture can. Yes, any musician who makes a living has to be at least partially commercial, but this kind of grassroots culture has been mostly washed away by everything from high urban realestate prices to the pervasive dominance of corporate entertainment.

There are times when even the most hardcore activist needs a break from politics. When you want something to dance to or chill to when you come home from work, or a soundtrack for lovemaking, are you going to put on a discussion of the Bush regime’s latest abominations – or are you going to put on something that feels good and speaks to your soul?

“The best jazz, blues, bebop, funk, it’s an expression of sex,” Smith told Keyboard magazine in an interview published a few weeks before his death. “You can’t say out loud what you wanna do, but you can say it with the instrument. The music is nothing without that energy.”