March 2006

Jimmy Smith

(12.8.28-2.8.05)

It was circa 1991, and I was a young music student in New York City. A friend of mine had turned me on to an incredible Jimmy Smith record called Organ Grinder Swing, which I then proceeded to wear out. And so it was with great anticipation and excitement that I went down to Fat Tuesdays to hear Jimmy play live for the first time. I got there early, picked out a seat in front of the stage and ordered my drink. I thought I was ready for what was about to come--but there's no way I could have been ready. Jimmy started playing, and all of a sudden the whole room became enveloped by the sound of the Hammond. I'm not talking about volume. His sound came out and just gave everybody in the club a warm bear hug. Soulful would not even begin to describe it. It was many things. It was bluesy. It was spiritual. It was sexual. The way he was playing the pedals, the lyricism of his lines, his groove, it was all too much. My jaw kind of dropped, and I just got this stupefied expression on my face. I know this because Jimmy saw me and started imitating my expressions in a teasing, mocking kind of way. And between tunes he would wink, or make some little comment, something to the effect of, "You like that? Now check this out."

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Francis Wolff

Jimmy Smith

Every once in a while a musician comes along who seems to defy explanation; guys like these are the innovators, the giants of the music. Art Tatum comes to mind. So does Bird. Often they arrive on the scene with their conception seemingly fully formed, as if spontaneously appearing out of nowhere. Surely they must be influenced by what came before, but it's hard to follow the genealogy of their development, because usually their conception involves busting open all preconceived limitations of their instrument. Jimmy Smith was one such giant. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that literally every organ player who came after him was in some way or another influenced by him.

I was determined to get a lesson from the great master while he was in town. Mustering up my courage, I went up to him after the show and asked, "Would it be possible?" I had an organ at my apartment. I lived less than 15 blocks from the club. I would pay him whatever he needed. "Come back tomorrow," he said, "and we'll talk about it."

Meanwhile, he asked me if I played the pedals. "No," I said. "Why not?" Jimmy said. "You paid for them, didn't you?" Touche.

I ended going back to the club every night that week. I never did get him to come over, but I did learn some important lessons anyway. Mainly I learned that in the right hands, the organ has the ability to touch people like no other instrument. And I learned that when Jimmy Smith sat down to play, you knew you were in for a transcendent experience. He will be missed.

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