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Happy Birthday, Jimmy Smith!

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Jimmy Smith is the acknowledged master of the Hammond B-3 organ. In fact, the B-3 is the only instrument in jazz on which you'd find so little disagreement about who was the greatest player. And Smith took up the instrument relatively late.

Smith was born on this date in 1925 (although some members of his family claimed he was actually three years younger) in Norristown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Both his parents were pianists, and young Jimmy took up that instrument as well. He joined the Navy in World War Two, where he played both piano and bass in segregated band. After his discharge, Smith attended the Hamilton and Ornstein schools of music in Philadelphia, studying piano and bass while working jobs in construction and on the railroad.

In 1951, he was playing rhythm-and-blues piano with Don Gardner's Sonotones and toying with the idea of playing the B-3 organ. That's when he heard Wild Bill Davis, the “organ king" of the day, playing at an Atlantic City club and Smith knew he had to make the switch. He bought his first organ in 1954 and kept it in a Philadelphia warehouse, where he practiced on it.

In January 1956, Smith made his debut in New York City at Small's Paradise in Harlem, then he made a splash at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, and the rest is history. He started recording with Blue Note Records shortly afterward with the hit A New Sound, a New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, and he made over 30 additional albums for the label, including The Sermon! (1958), Midnight Special (1960), Back at the Chicken Shack (also 1960), and Prayer Meetin' (1963).

Smith played a winning combination of R&B-inflected blues and bop in an earthy groove that came to be called the “Philadelphia sound." He had a very percussive fingering attack on the organ and emphasized certain notes in the lower ranges much like someone playing a string bass. Before Smith, the organ got little respect in the jazz world—his appearance on the scene changed everything.

He switched to Verve Records in the 1960s, with whom he recorded over 30 more albums. He worked with many of the great jazz musicians of the day, including Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Stanley Turrentine, Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Tina Brooks, and Jackie McLean. In the 1970s, Smith took a break from touring and opened an supper club in Los Angeles, where he regularly played. But in the 1980s and 1990s, he started recording and touring again, right up to his death in 2005. In his final year, Smith was awarded the NEA Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

ne of my favorite albums of Smith's is the aforementioned Midnight Special, where a quiet, swinging groove is maintained throughout by Kenny Burrell on guitar, Stanley Turrentine on sax, and Donald Bailey on drums. Here is a video of Smith playing the title tune from that album live in 1992.


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This story appears courtesy of Riffs on Jazz by John Anderson.
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