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November 23, 2004
Jimmy Smith literally invented jazz organ. Before his string of Blue Note albums in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the organ was thought of as a novelty. But Smith gave it legitimacy, and set the standard and the sound on the Hammond B-3 that is still being emulated today.
Wes Montgomery didn’t invent jazz guitar, but he was one of its most important innovators. He created a different way of playing the instrument, using his thumb instead of a pick and playing two-note octave intervals by judicious use of his fretting left hand.
In September, 1966, producer Creed Taylor brought Smith and Montgomery together in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, for a couple of recording sessions that achieved legendary status for the two albums that resulted---The Dynamic Duo and Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes. Because of the renown of those two records, many believe the two musicians had a longer relationship than they actually did. But Wes Montgomery died in 1968 at the age of 43, just two years after they met at those sessions, and they never had the chance to play together again.
Jimmy Smith, however, is still going strong, and Friday night he’ll be in Norfolk for a Jazz on Granby concert billed as “A Tribute to Wes Montgomery.” The guitarist’s shoes will be filled by Mark Whitfield, a 37 year-old inheritor of Montgomery’s legacy, and one of Smith’s regular musical partners.
Whitfield, a 1987 graduate of Berklee College of Music, is one of the most versatile and highly regarded guitarists of his generation, with an impressive recording and performing resume as leader and sideman. He was Smith’s personal pick when original co-headliner Larry Coryell canceled for a weeklong tour of Russia with his quartet.
Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, about twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia, Jimmy Smith taught himself to play as a youngster.
“I was living with my grandmother,” he told me last week after returning to his home in Phoenix from a batch of European gigs, “and we had an old upright piano from the Salvation Army. I learned how to play on that. I’m self taught, I don’t read music.”
After serving in the Navy at the end of World War II, he studied music formally in Philadelphia on the GI bill. While playing in a local R&B group in the early ‘50s, he began playing the organ to broaden his expressive range beyond that of the piano. In 1955, he went to Club Harlem in Atlantic City to hear the then-king of the organ, Wild Bill Davis.
“I asked him how long it would take me to start the organ,” Smith remembered. “He told me it would take something like sixteen years just to learn the pedals. And I said, ‘to hell with you.’ I was playing the pedals already, before I talked to him. I wanted to know if I was doing ‘em right.
“He was playing in all the clubs in Atlantic City, and I was down there with my dad. I was especially down there to hear him, and I liked what he was doing. Then when I asked him how long it would take me and he said sixteen years, I said, well, I’ll be an old man!”
But the conversation inspired Smith to practice even more, developing his own style on the new Hammond B-3 that had been introduced that year. By using the instrument’s drawbars and the “Hammond percussion” feature, Smith created the sound that would become synonymous with jazz, and later rock, organ.
“I would say, not three months from then, someone heard me play at the Belmont,” he explained. “Sammy Davis’ mother owned that club. She put me in the club for just a tryout. I went around the corner, the man at the Cotton Club heard me play and he put me in the Cotton Club for more money. Before I knew it---Wild Bill Davis was in the same club I was playing in---when they heard me, they fired him! They put him in the back room and they put me in the front bar, in the main room.”
Shortly thereafter, Smith was signed to the Blue Note label. His first Blue Note album was recorded in February, 1956, and by the following year the first of his legendary recordings was in the can, House Party. This was followed by The Sermon, Back at the Chicken Shack, and Midnight Special, and Jimmy Smith was a best-seller through the first half of the ‘60s.
In 1966, he and Wes Montgomery were both recording for Verve, and Creed Taylor thought it might be a smart move to bring his two best known artists together. They had never met.
“We walked in the same door at the same time at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio,” Smith recalled. “He got out of his limo, and I got out of my car---I had an XKE Jag then. We met at the door. We pointed to each other and he says, ‘You’re Jimmy Smith,’ and I said, ‘You’re Wes Montgomery,’ just like that. Then we walked in and before you know it, there it was. We didn’t want to leave the studio.”
Since that time, Jimmy Smith has remained the best known organist in jazz. He’s consistently been voted #1 in the polls, including a 38-year run at the top of the Downbeat jazz critics’ poll.
The popularity of “organ combos” has come and gone and come again, and yet, two weeks shy of his 76th birthday, he’s still the man whose influence is undeniable. Friday night, the audience at the Roper Performing Arts Center will find out why.
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