Jimmy Smith

8 Feb

Remembering organist Jimmy Smith on the anniversary of his death six years ago.

Rarely, as at least one reviewer has noted, has an album been more aptly titled than Smith’s 1956 debut album: “A New Sound … A New Star … Jimmy Smith at the Organ.” Because Smith is credited with delivering on both — making the organ an outlet for jazz and becoming a star while doing so.

“Anyone who plays the organ is a direct descendant of Jimmy Smith. It’s like Adam and Eve — you always remind someone of Jimmy Smith,” said Joey DeFrancesco, an organ descendant of Smith’s.

Smith came by the talent naturally — his father was a piano player in his native Norristown, Pa. (The year of Smith’s birth is doubly credited as 1925 or 1928; if the latter, he joined the Navy at 15). Smith used the G.I. Bill of Rights to attend college, where he tried to hide from his music teacher that he couldn’t read the music.  Said Smith: “She would say, ‘Now James, you think you can read this?’ I’d say, ‘Yes ma’am.’ I hated for her to find out I was just doing it by ear. She’d say, ‘James, are you sure you’re reading music?'”

He could play it, and that was all that mattered. He moved from the piano to the organ in 1951 — Smith said he got his first organ from a loan shark — and practiced, practiced, practiced. He was working a New York club in 1956 when Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff saw him perform: “The air was filled with waves of sound I had never heard before . . . He came off the stand, smiling, the sweat dripping all over him. ‘So what do you think?’ ‘Yeah!’ I said. That’s all I could say.”

Smith’s output was far more voluminous — he was called The Incredible Jimmy Smith, and his discography, in addition, to his work, certainly was. He made more than 30 albums for Blue Note and more than 30 more for Verve, and was still working up to his death, recording an album and planning a tour with DeFrancesco.

“DeFrancesco: “He went out at the top of his game . . . He was full of fire and soul, just the complete musician.”

The title cut of his 1964 album, performed live:


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