Jimmy Smith, jazz organ trailblazer

Posted: February 10, 2005

What Miles Davis did for the trumpet and John Coltrane did for the alto saxophone, Jimmy Smith did for the organ.

The Philadelphia-area jazzman, who elevated the Hammond B3 from a novelty instrument to revolutionary heights, creating a gritty and exuberant blend of hard bop, blues and funk, died Tuesday of natural causes at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. His family said he was 76.

"He was a guy that should be put on the level with all the other great masters in jazz," said guitarist Kenny Burrell, who collaborated with Mr. Smith on 12 albums in the late 1950s and '60s. "He wasn't the first to play [jazz] organ, but he was the most creative."

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 11, 2005, FOLLOWS: An obituary yesterday for the jazz organist Jimmy Smith misstated the kind of saxophone played by John Coltrane. It was the tenor saxophone. CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 12, 2005, FOLLOWS: The obituary for jazz organist Jimmy Smith on Thursday misstated when he signed with Verve Records. He was with the label from 1963 to 1972.

Philadelphia saxophonist Odean Pope, who shared the bandstand with Mr. Smith in the late '50s at Spider Kelly's club in Center City, said, "Jimmy was a true forerunner, a genius. Some people were meant to do certain things. [Mr. Smith] was meant to play the organ."

Born in Norristown as the second of six children, James Oscar Smith learned to play stride piano at an early age. At 8, he won the Major Bowes amateur contest in Philadelphia five weeks in a row, said his sister, Anita Johnson, and the family was asked not to bring him back.

After being discharged from the Navy, he used the GI Bill to attend the Hamilton School of Music in New York and Ornstein's School of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied bass and piano.

Upon switching to organ in 1953, Mr. Smith's reputation grew. Inspired by organist "Wild" Bill Davis and horn players Coleman Hawkins, Don Byars and Arnet Cobb, Mr. Smith formulated horn solos with his right hand and thick chords with his left.

His was a sound unlike any other. With his first album in 1956 - A New Sound . . . A New Star . . . Jimmy Smith at the Organ, on Blue Note - and appearances at Birdland and the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957, he became the one to emulate.

A tall, slender man with long piano fingers and a formidable presence, "Jimmy was a very funny person with lots of edges. He wasn't subtle," Burrell recalled. "He was very outspoken and got right to the point, but he had a beautiful heart. His music was that way, too."

Burrell's cool, pastel electric guitar provided the perfect complement to Mr. Smith's vivid, gospel-inflected organ. The two teamed up for some of Mr. Smith's most popular albums: The Sermon! (1958), Home Cookin' (1959), Back at the Chicken Shack (1960), and Midnight Special (1960).

"We had some kind of magic, simpatico," Burrell said. "Musically, Jimmy and I had a thing that always worked, which happened very rarely in my career. I treasured that."

Mr. Smith signed with Verve Records in the 1970s and toured Europe and Japan during the '80s and '90s.

He picked up many accolades, including the 2005 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master award, its highest jazz honor, which he received with Burrell last month in Washington.

NEA Chairman Dana Gioia said yesterday, "Jazz has lost a pioneering talent, not to mention a one-of-a-kind personality."

Mr. Smith is survived by his children, Constance Perez of Norristown, Karen Jackson of Philadelphia, and James Smith Jr. and Jia Smith, both of Lafayette Hill; sisters Anita Johnson of Harleysville and Janet Taylor of Norristown; and numerous grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Contact staff writer Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com.

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