Born James Oscar Smith, December 8, 1928, in Norristown, PA; died February 8, 2005, in Scottsdale, AZ. Jazz musician. When many people think of jazz, most think of the saxophone, the drums, or the piano. Though jazz great Fats Waller made the organ popular, it faded into the background in the early 20th century until Jimmy Smith brought it back. Smith also brought a new style of play to the organ, and it became a mainstay in jazz music and catapulted Smith to legendary status.
Smith was born into a musical family on December 8, 1928, though many references give his birth year as 1925. His father taught him to play the piano, and young Jimmy won a contest playing the stride piano at age 12. Smith dropped out of school after completing the eighth grade. He made a living playing the piano and also worked with his father as a dancer. Smith joined the Navy at age 15, and played in a segregated band during his tour of duty. After his discharge, he used his GI Bill to attend Philadelphia's prestigious Hamilton School of Music and the Ornstein School, where he studied piano and double bass.
Smith joined a R&B band called the Soundtones, but also worked in construction and later for the Pennsylvania Railroad during the day. He heard Wild Bill Davis—who pioneered the organ trio format—playing one night and asked him how long it would take to learn to play the organ. Davis told him it would take years to master the pedals alone. Smith borrowed money and bought a Hammond B3 organ. He practiced during the day, and played at various clubs at night. He mastered the pedals in months, and soon began playing in various venues in the area, and debuted at the legendary Small's Paradise in New York.
Using a pedal style created by organist Bill Doggett to bring out the percussive sound, Smith also worked to use his left hand to bring out a saxophone-like sound and modal tones usually associated with the piano, and his right hand to play the melodies and improvisations. In an article he wrote for the Hammond Times, excerpted in the New York Times by Ben Ratliff, Smith stated, "While others think of the organ as a full orchestra, I think of it as a horn.… I wanted that single-line sound like a trumpet, a tenor or an alto saxophone." He took part in trios and also big bands, and soon word spread about his style of play that combined the blues, R&B, and gospel. Though the Philadelphia area was known for an aggressive organ style that combined blues with bebop, Smith became the king of the new style as he was the only one who could masterfully handle the pedals on the organ. "It was organ city but Jimmy was the king because he knew how to use his feet more effectively than any of us," jazz organist Jimmy McGriff told London's Times . Thanks to him, the growing popularity of the organ saw the creation and subsequent spread of organ rooms (trendy bars and clubs that featured organ trios) along the East Coast.
Smith and his band played at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957. This brought him to the attention of the Blue Note record label. His first release, A New Sound, A New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, debuted with much fanfare. At times he was billed as the Incredible Jimmy Smith. He recorded more than 30 albums with Blue Note in a short period of time. Smith also collaborated with numerous musicians, including guitarist and college professor Kenny Burrell, saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, and trumpeter Lee Morgan. His releases included The Sermon, The Cat, and Bashin'.
Smith switched to the Verve record label in 1962. He continued to release new albums throughout the 1960s and the early part of the 1970s. He also worked with legendary guitarist Wes Montgomery. Smith began touring extensively, but slowed down when he and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1980. He opened the Jimmy Smith Supper Club. For several years, Smith toured and also performed at his club, which closed down a few years after it opened.
In the 1990s, Smith began releasing new albums, signing with the Concord jazz label. He also began to tour again. He worked with fellow organist Joey DeFrancesco, often performing with him at a local club on Sunday afternoons. Word soon spread, and the two began attracting large crowds. Smith and his wife soon moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2004. He was also named a "Jazz Master" by the National Endowment of the Arts in 2004. Smith and De-Francesco recorded an album together, Legacy , and began preparation to go on tour. Before this could occur, Smith died at home in his sleep of natural causes on February 8, 2005, at the age of 76. His album was released posthumously. He was preceded in death by his wife, Lola, months earlier, and is survived by two daughters, a son, and a stepson. DeFrancesco told Jon Thurber in the Los Angeles Times, "Jimmy was one of the greatest and most innovative musicians of our time." Sources: Chicago Tribune, February 10, 2005, sec. 3, p. 10; Contemporary Musicians, vol. 54, Gale Group, 2005; Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2005, p. B10; New York Times, February 10, 2005, p. C17; Times (London), March 31, 2005, p. 58; Washington Post, February 11, 2005, p. B8.
— Ashyia N. Henderson