These days, it is rare to hear an organ in a jazz ensemble. The exception is Dr. Lonnie Smith who not only remains the master of the Hammond B-3 organ but also has had a career that spans more than five decades. Smith will be performing at Sixth & I in Washington, DC, on Saturday, March 16, 2019, at 8:00 p.m., presented by Washington Performing Arts.
Born in Buffalo, New York in 1942, Smith became a member of the George Benson quartet in the 1960s, and forged his way and sound into the jazz scene, eventually cementing his place in jazz history. There have been other jazz organists: Count Basie, Ray Charles, Alice Coltrane, Jimmy McGriff, and Jack McDuff, but Smith’s career has outlasted all of his contemporaries and he is solely associated with the Hammond B-3 organ.
Dubbed a “living legend,” Smith attributes his longevity in a business that takes no prisoners to “loving the music and loving to play for the people.”
For Smith, the Hammond B-3 organ says everything he wants to express, “it has a depth and honesty in the sound. It has imperfections. It has all the noise and quirks. It’s nasty. It’s wonderful. It has all the elements in the world.” Many younger jazz musicians do not know the sound of this organ because they “know the clones, the synthesizers,” says Smith. Today, Joey DeFrancesco, a younger jazz musician, is one of the rare players of the Hammond B-3 organ along with Smith.
Smith first recorded with George Benson on his album “It’s Uptown” (Columbia, 1966). His recording career as a sideman and leader expands from 1966 to 2018, with a discography that includes more than 100 recordings with jazz and R&B greats: Jimmy McGriff, Lou Donaldson, and Marvin Gaye, to name a few, and with 25 or more of those recordings with Smith as the leader. For future recordings, Smith wants to “play some of the stuff” in his head.
A jazz organist, composer, and a philosopher, Smith believes that “music chose him,” he did not choose music. “When you are playing, you want to touch someone. You want them to feel [the music]. I love to see and feel [the audience’s] response. You can stay home and play for yourself” if you want to play music that only you like or is inaccessible to the general audience. Smith’s attention to playing accessible music perhaps attributes to his lengthy career.
One of Smith’s goals when playing is “to feel what I feel at the moment. That’s something that comes from the heart.” True to jazz’s form, this means that he cannot always replicate what he plays extemporaneously. This alone is reason enough to hear him perform live.
Having never gone to school to learn to read music, Smith finds it challenging to replicate himself even when recording. He states that during recording sessions, “when the wheels in the studio turn, it’s time to go. I cannot play it the same way twice.” He feels that his inclination for playing comes naturally. “If you want to learn my song, I play or hum it.” That is, Smith will not hand you a chart to read.
Smith’s sound on and compositions for the Hammond B-3 organ earned him the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters award in 2017. “Being honored to join my family of musicians is a blessing beyond words. It means that my music speaks to people of all walks and embodies my idea of ultimately bringing the world together. I am deeply grateful for this recognition by the NEA and thank them for their contribution to the arts,” Smith graciously said in response to receiving this award according to the NEA website.
“Playing music feels so good. We’d have more harmony in the world,” if more people played an instrument and listened to music, Smith philosophizes. Seeking or infusing harmony into such turbulent times can only be good for Washington, DC. Let us hope that Dr. Smith can deliver a respite for his audience and allow folks to enjoy a performance that leaves them feeling good and yearning for more.
Smith’s selected discography includes “Finger-Lickin’ Good,” Columbia, 1966-1967; “Think!,” Blue Note, 1968; “Boogaloo to Beck,” Scufflin’ Records, 2003; “The Healer,” Pilgrimage Records, 2012; and “Evolution,” Blue Note, 2016.
For his Washington, DC engagement, Smith will perform with his trio and from his live album, “All in My Mind.” Drummer Xavier Breaker and guitarist David Rosenthal will join Smith. Smith will also have CDs for sale after his performance.