by Joey DeFrancesco
Jimmy Smith was a visionary who possessed the foresight and creative mind to take an unconventional instrument and place it in the mainstream. His musical skills were far more advanced than those of any other jazz organist who came before or after. There was the blues-drenched tradition and his innate groove and sense of swing, of course, but what Jimmy had above all was a keen harmonic sense.
Jimmy’s playing was so advanced that he was playing like Coltrane before Coltrane. In fact, in 1955, Trane was in Jimmy’s band, and I’m positive he copped many of his things from Jimmy. Other cats were credited with the newer style of jazz, and in most cases rightfully so, but Jimmy should be right there with all of them. Miles called him the eighth wonder of the world.
He played with some of our greatest and most legendary jazz figures: Billy Hart, Kenny Burrell, George Benson, James Moody, George Coleman, etc. He kept cats working for years. When the music scene abandoned the Hammond B3, Jimmy was still out there humpin’ and breaking his ass. His body of recorded works is overwhelming. He’s right up there with the genius of Ray Charles, Miles, Trane, Bird–all of them.
My Pop introduced me to Jimmy when I was a baby, and I had the opportunity to meet and sit in with him when I was 7. Our paths would cross over the years, including when we did the two recordings together. I was very fortunate to spend so much time with him in his last year. He was my mentor and my friend. I loved him.
by Sam Yahel
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.”
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.
by Dianne Reeves
I remember the first time I saw Ms. Horn perform. It was in the early ’90s at the Cinegrill in Los Angeles. I had heard her on the records but I had never seen her perform. I just remember she could hold people in suspended animation. I had never felt like that.
On a record, you only hear a song one way. But jazz is something different every night. Just hearing her passion that night and being able to be right there, hearing the sound and closing my eyes and being caught up with it. That was amazing.
The first Shirley Horn record I heard was an album called Loads of Love (Mercury, 1963). It was something she did a long time ago. Someone made me a cassette of the record. I think it’s an album that she didn’t even play the piano on. She was just singing.
The first Shirley Horn recording that I bought was Here’s to Life (Verve, 1991). Oh, my god, it’s my favorite record of all time. I still remember the first time I heard it and the power I felt from it. She just speaks of a life in volumes on that record. It just has so many seasons, dealing with all different aspects of love. To this day, I still listen to it. In fact, I always put it on during the first snow of the year.
Ms. Horn inspired me to really take my time. She also inspired me to really connect the harmonies with the melody so that it creates a whole different kind of feeling. Like being able to make the harmonies address the melody. But more than anything, she taught me to tell my story and take my time while I’m telling it.
In the true tradition of great jazz singers, Ms. Horn has left so much music for so many people to go through and see a life and feel a life. She sang so many songs about having a better life and looking at life more closely. She is truly one of those singers a young person goes to in order to discover a special treasure. There’s so much music for young people to really come to an understanding of an amazing musical life.
I will remember her in the spaces, in that time that it takes to get from one phrase to another. She had this ability with time. She made you want to hear the next breath, the next word or how the story was going to unfold.
When I was a a young singer, it was the spaces in the music that scared me more than anything. And she took that time and made it into an art form.