Born James Oscar Smith on December 8, 1925, in Norristown, PA; died on February 8, 2005, in Scottsdale, AZ. Addresses: Record company---Blue Note Records, 304 Park Ave. S., 3rd Fl., New York, NY 10010, phone: (212) 253-3000, website: http://www.bluenote.com.

More than any other musician, Jimmy Smith was responsible for the rise in prominence of the Hammond B-3 organ in jazz. "He revolutionized the instrument," wrote Ron Wynn and Bob Porter in All Music Guide, "showing it could be creatively used in a jazz context and popularized in the process." With classic pieces like "The Sermon!" in 1957 and "Back at the Chicken Shack" in 1960, and a series of hit albums on Blue Note and Verve during the 1950s and 1960s, Smith set the standard for other jazz organists. His style and approach would also bridge the gap between jazz styles during these same years. "There were organists in jazz before Jimmy Smith," noted Richard Cook in the New Statesman, "but he turned the electric Hammond B-3 from an ice-rink novelty into a legitimate vehicle for keyboard players who wanted something beefier and louder than the piano."

Jimmy Smith was born James Oscar Smith on December 8, in either 1925 or 1928 (traditional sources list 1925; his family claims 1928), in Norristown, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a musical family, and initially learned piano from both of his parents. By the age of 12, Smith had won his first competition in a stride piano contest, and as a teenager he worked in a song and dance duo with his father. The duo found multiple opportunities in Philadelphia, only 20 miles distant from Norristown, on the radio and in clubs. Smith entered the Navy in the mid-1940s and when he was discharged in 1947 he was able to attend school on the GI Bill. He attended both the Hamilton School of Music (1948) and the Ornstein's School of Music (1949-50) in Philadelphia, studying piano and bass.

In 1951 Smith joined Don Gardner's Sonotones, an R&B band, and soon started to experiment with the Hammond organ. His interest in the organ was spurred on when he attended shows by Wild Bill Davis, the leading organ player of the time, at Club Harlem in New Jersey. "Bill had everything goin'," Smith told Pete Fallico at Jazz Ateria. In 1954 Smith bought his first organ and began to explore its possibilities in a Philadelphia warehouse, emulating the styles of saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, and Arnette Cobb. "I copped my solos from horn players," he told Fallico. "I don't listen to keyboard players. I can't get what I want from keyboard players." Two years later he brought his new organ sound to New York City and debuted at Small's Paradise in Harlem. He soon signed with Blue Note Records and appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.

Between Smith's Blue Note recording debut in 1956 and his last album for the label in 1963, the Hammond B-3 organ powerfully inserted itself into the sound of contemporary jazz. Even the audacious title of his first album, A New Sound, a New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, lived up to its billing. "The emergence of Jimmy Smith in 1956 was quite noteworthy," wrote Scott Yanow in All Music Guide. "Here was an organist who could play his instrument with the facility of a Charlie Parker and yet could also dig into a lowdown blues." Smith recorded quickly and prolifically for Blue Note, first in the trio format and later in larger ensembles. Many of the recordings between 1957 and 1960 were loose jam sessions, allowing the musicians ample room (as much as 15 and 20 minutes per composition) to develop soulful solos. Smith's adventurous work in the late 1950s was instrumental in developing both hard bop, an extension of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's bop style, and soul jazz, a style that incorporated R&B, gospel, and the blues.

In 1962 Smith signed with Verve Records (Blue Note albums continued to be issued through 1963), a relationship that would last until the early 1970s. During that time he recorded the classic Jimmy and Wes: The Dynamic Duo with guitarist Wes Montgomery in 1966. "Although it is unfortunate that the Smith-Wes collaboration was short-lived (just one other album)," wrote Yanow, "it is miraculous that they did find each other and created this brilliant music." Smith also toured frequently in the 1960s and 1970s before moving with his wife to Los Angeles, where he opened Jimmy Smith's Supper Club.

In the early 1980s Smith returned to the spotlight with the release of Off the Top, his first album for a major label in nearly ten years. "Smith plays some unusual material. ... on this LP," noted Yanow, "but swings everything and has a particularly strong supporting cast." In the 1990s Smith made two tours of Europe despite a broken arm, and made appearances at the Glasgow Jazz Festival. "With British outfits such as the James Taylor Quartet and the Tommy Chase Band championing the Hammond sound," wrote Rob Adams in the Glasgow Herald, "audiences over here were primed for the live experience of what had become known as acid jazz's originator."

Smith's influence over other organists was extensive. "Before Jimmy," organist Joey DeFrancesco told Howard Reich in the Chicago Tribune, "everyone approached the organ like a big band, with big block chords, but Jimmy did things that never were done before." Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, and many others followed in Smith's footsteps during the 1960s, developing within the parameters of his innovations. His influence also extended to other instrumentalists. "Jimmy was playing modal things in the early '50s," guitarist Henry Johnson told Reich, "and John Coltrane picked up a lot of that from him."

On February 8, 2005, Smith died in his sleep at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. Jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco, quoted in Jazz Times, noted that "Jimmy was one of the greatest and most innovative musicians of our time. I love the man and I love the music." Smith and DeFrancesco had recently recorded an album together and had planned a national tour. The album, Legacy, was released by Concord Records only days after Smith's death. "Doubly blessed with a quicksilver technique and an unusually advanced harmonic imagination," wrote Reich, "He invented a brilliant new way of addressing the organ."

by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr

Jimmy Smith's Career

Joined Don Gardner's Sonotones, 1951; debuted as solo act at Small's Paradise in Harlem, 1956; signed to Blue Note Records, 1956; performed at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1957; signed to Verve Records, 1962; opened Jimmy Smith's Supper Club in Los Angeles, 1970s; recorded last album, Legacy, with Joey DeFrancesco, 2005.

Famous Works

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 7 years ago

I have one jimmy simth cd. Dotcom blues. GREAT!!! aLSO aCID JAZZ WITH WES MONTGOMERY may look for some old stuff.

over 7 years ago

I've got a great album where Jimmy had a trio with Kenny Burrell (gtr) and Grady Tate (dms) There's a real lowdown blues where Jimmy really goes for it. I always wish I had the chance to see him live - but I've still got the albums which I treasure. he definitely changed the face of music and was a great influence on many other players. ()Bernie Holland - Guitarist - London England)