Saturday, February 16, 2013

Jimmy Smith – Breaking New Ground


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.



The late Frank Wolff, Alfred Lion's partner in Blue Note, wrote, "I first heard Jimmy at Small's Paradise in January of 1956. It was his first gig in New York— one week. He was a stunning sight. A man in convulsions, face contorted, crouched over in apparent agony, the fingers flying, his foot dancing over the pedals. The air was filled with waves of sound that I had never heard before. The noise was shattering.”

I wanted to expand a bit upon an earlier posting about Jimmy Smith to underscore how great his accomplishment was in bringing Jazz to the Hammond B-3 organ.

You can gain some idea of the magnitude of Jimmy’s achievement from this 1964 Hammond Times  excerpt:

© -Hammond Times, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I never did take lessons, just taught myself. First, I learned about the drawbars and what each one stood for. As time passed, I experimented trying out all the different sounds. Next came the presets. I tried them out too but I don't use them very much except when playing ballads or something sweet and soft. When it came to the foot pedals, I made a chart of them and put it on the wall in front of me so I wouldn't have to look down. My first method was just using the toe. In the earlier days I was a tap dancer so the transition to heel and toe playing was made without too much trouble. One thing I learned was that you have to have a relaxed ankle. I would write out different bass lines to try for different tempi in order to relax the ankle. One useful learning technique was to put my favorite records on and then play the bass line along with them to see if I could play the pedals without looking down and only occasionally using my chart on the wall. This worked out fine.

When you are properly coordinated, you get an even flow in the bass. Most often, organists are uneven in their playing of the pedals, heavy here and light there. Soon I was putting hands and feet together and achieving co-ordination. My first job with the organ was at a Philadelphia supper club, playing a duo with drums. It was here I began further experimentation with different drawbar settings and using different effects and dynamics. It was before these audiences that the Jimmy Smith sound evolved. People always ask me about this sound. This probably is best explained in my approach to the organ. While others think of the organ as a full orchestra, I think of it as a horn. I've always been an admirer of Charlie Parker, and I try to sound like him. I wanted that single-line sound like a trumpet, a tenor or an alto saxophone.”

And the following excerpt from Kenny Mathieson’s Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-1965 offers an even broader context in which to view Jimmy’s feat:

© -Kenny Mathieson/Canongate Books, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In musical terms, … Smith … is the key figure in the evolution of the Hammond organ as a jazz instrument.  As he says, the electric organ had been used in jazz before he first took it up, either on an occasional basis by the likes of Fats Waller and Count Basic, or more regularly by musicians like Glenn Hardman, Doggett, Buckner and Davis. It was Smith, though, who brought the instrument to genuine prominence in a series of recordings for Blue Note in the late 1950s, and established it as a central jazz voice rather than an occasional novelty. Given that he had no instruction, the speed with which he had mastered the instrument by the time of his recording debut early in 1956 was a formidable achievement in itself, regardless of when he started.


The Hammond B-3 organ offered several advantages to the jazz player. Waller and Basic had played and recorded on fixed pipe organs, but the Hammond was relatively portable, although anyone who has ever been lured into helping move one will know that relatively is the correct word. Laurens Hammond had begun manufacturing the instrument in Chicago in 1935, and used a system of rotating steel tone wheels and an electromagnetic pickup to generate both the notes and the additional overtone pitches controlled by the drawbars above the two sets of keyboards (technically, organ keyboards are know as 'manuals'). The introduction of the rotating Leslie speaker in the early 1940s, combined with developments in the Hammond itself (notably the introduction of a percussion stop), helped provide the instrument with its characteristic tremolo sound. Later innovations introduced more technically advanced electronic attributes which eventually led to the tone wheel system becoming obsolete, but the tone wheel models have a distinctive weight and character to their sound which is much sought after, and the Hammond B-3 has remained the classic instrument of choice for jazz players.

Smith achieved a new musical synthesis on the instrument, and took the playing techniques to unprecedented levels. He developed a style which allowed him to play walking bass lines with his feet on the pedals, while playing chordal accompaniment with his left hand, and fleet, single-line melodies (or additional chord punctuations) with his right. The freedom to supply his own independent bass lines obviated the need for a bass player, and he formed what would become the archetypal soul jazz unit in 1955, a trio with organ, guitar and drums (a saxophone, usually tenor, was the optional extra in the equation). His music brought together elements from bebop and swing with blues and rhythm and blues, while the Hammond, which was widely used in black churches, lent itself particularly well to the gospel elements which infused hard bop and especially soul jazz. The combination would prove irresistible. The organ trio flourished in black clubs and bars, and eventually became one of the most popular of all jazz formats.

He brought his trio to New York early in 1956, playing at Small's Paradise in Harlem and at the Cafe Bohemia in Greenwich Village, and left the city's jazz scene buzzing with tales of a new star in the making. Among the jaws dropping were those of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff of Blue Note, and the latter left a vivid verbal image of the experience (reprinted in the CD insert for The Best of Jimmy Smith: The Blue Note Years) to accompany his many photographs of the organist: 'Jimmy Smith was first with the mostest. I first heard Jimmy at Small's Paradise in January of 1956. It was his first gig in New York - one week. He was a stunning sight. A man in convulsions, face contorted, crouched over in apparent agony, his fingers flying, his foot dancing over the pedals. The air was filled with waves of sound I had never heard before. The noise was shattering. A few people sat around, puzzled, but impressed.'


Blue Note lost no time in taking Smith into the studio for the first time in February, 1956, and made it clear that their new signing was something special, issuing his debut album under the emphatic title of A New Sound - A New Star: Jimmy Smith At The Organ. The first volume, with Thornel Schwartz on guitar and drummer Bay Perry, contained Smith's version of 'The Preacher' and a blistering version of that great jam session perennial, ‘Lady, Be Good', while Volume 2, recorded in March with Donald Bailey taking over the drum chair, opened with an even more famous version of Dizzy Gillespie's The Champ'. The best of this up-tempo material has a raw excitement which still shines through (the ballads are rather overwrought), while Smith's extraordinary facility is matched by a genuine improvisational flair. Schwarz sounds a shade uncomfort­able when soloing at these speeds, and comes across as rather tame by comparison with the pyrotechnics erupting from the organ.

At this point, Smith was still audibly influenced by Wild Bill Davis's big, hard-driving, rather ornate style, and is still gripped by the sheer sonic possibilities of the instrument's effects, sometimes to the point of overkill. He would evolve an even more distinctive and influential voice in the ensuing years, when he began to concentrate more specifically on the horn-influenced, single line approach to soloing which he made his own. When I asked him about influences, all of the players he cited were saxophonists   -Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas. Piano players, he said, 'can't give me the shit I need'.”

[Around 1963, Smith parted company with Blue Note] … leaving a legacy, which, while undeniably formulaic, had not only established him beyond any serious contention as the leading exponent of the Hammond B-3 in jazz, but had done much to lay the foundations of the soul jazz sub-genre. By the time he left, there were numerous organ players plying the same funky fare, but few of them were able to match up to Smith as jazz improvisers. Having established, and indeed patented, his style, Smith rarely departed much from it, but immediately set about varying the kind of settings in which his music had been presented when he joined his new label, Verve Records. Norman Granz had established the label as a major jazz imprint, but he had sold it to MGM in 1960, and the presiding influence at Verve in this period was producer Creed Taylor.”

Jimmy’s output for Verve was very uneven, but while  he was with the label he did make some interesting recordings with guitarist Wes Montgomery and some that placed him in a new, big band setting with imaginative and commercially appealing arrangements by Oliver Nelson.”

Michael Cuscuna offered a succinct synopsis of Jimmy Smith’s rise to celebrity status  in the Jazz world and his early years at Blue Note in the following insert notes to  Jimmy’s Cool Blues Blue Note CD [7243 5 35587 2 7]. They are reprinted below with his permission.


© - Michael Cuscuna, used with permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Jimmy Smith's story is an unusual one because he single-handedly intro­duced an instrument into the modern jazz mainstream and created a sound and a style to go with it. What is most unusual is that he did not even approach the instrument until he was 28 years old, and he did not play a gig under his own leadership or record an album until he was 29.

Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania on December 8, 1926, Jimmy studied piano from his father and later attended the Orenstein School of Music in Philadelphia for three years, studying piano, bass, harmony and theory. A succession of R&B gigs followed until 1955 when Smith began considering the possibilities of the electric organ, having been inspired by the work of Wild Bill Davis.

He made a deal with a Philadelphia organ dealer to play on one of their organs at one dollar an hour until he could afford to buy his own. When he did buy his own instrument, he housed it in a warehouse near his residence and worked out conscientiously everyday, systematically teaching himself the instrument's capabilities and possibilities.

After a year of sweat, he emerged with a style all his own and a facility that could be described as nothing less than complete virtuosity. He formed his first trio with guitarist Thornel Schwartz and drummer Bey Perry. Word of this phenomenon came up to New York via musicians such as pianist Freddie Redd who happened to catch Smith while traveling through Philly. A few initial gigs in New York, uptown at Small's Paradise and downtown at Cafe Bohemia, and this man playing organ was literally the talk of the town. Alfred Lion of Blue Note was quick to check him out and even quicker to sign him. And from his first sessions, which included "The Preacher" and "The Champ," Jimmy Smith's records were commercial ana artistic hits.

Smith recorded for Blue Note from February 1956 to February 1963. And the label put him in a variety of settings during those seven years. He recorded with his working trio, with singers Babs Gonzales and Bill Henderson, with rhythm section guests Kenny Burrell, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in quartet setting with Lou Donaldson or Stanley Turrentine and with all star sextets that included Lee Morgan, Curtis Fuller, Tina Brooks, Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd, Blue Mitchell, Jackie McLean, Ike Quebec and many others.

He seemed to shine most on live recordings and dates with an assem­blage or challenging horn men. In this album, we have both. Small's Paradise, the legendary Harlem club at 135th Street and 7th Avenue, has contributed to the history of jazz since the twenties. It has special significance to Smith and his relationship with Blue Note. The late Frank Wolff, Alfred Lion's partner in Blue Note, wrote, "I first heard Jimmy at Small's Paradise in January of 1956. It was his first gig in New York— one week. He was a stunning sight. A man in convulsions, face contorted, crouched over in apparent agony, the fingers flying, his foot dancing over the pedals. The air was filled with waves of sound that I had never heard before. The noise was shattering. A few people sat around, puzzled, but impressed. 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. Alfred Lion had already made up his mind."

"It was in the cards," Wolff con­tinued, "that Jimmy would succeed. He had revamped the jazz organ and come up with a new sound. The sound has now been adopted by almost all jazz organists, but his style remains his own. Right from the start of his recording career, he was in full command of this very complex and demanding machine, the Hammond organ. Apart from his incredible technique, he had fire, feeling, beat, humor— all adding up to a highly personal style. Everything was there, everything was right when he did The Champ' and through the years so many other masterpieces. Jimmy Smith is a great artist— and a beautiful guy."”

Jimmy Smith reveled in the expanded soundscape provided by Oliver Nelson’s big band arrangements as you can hear in the following audio track with its evocative version of Walk on the Wild Side, Elmer Bernstein’s theme from the film of the same name.

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