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Jazz Musician Jimmy Smith, Master Organist, Dies at 76

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page B08

Jimmy Smith, 76, a jazz genius who for more than 40 years coaxed unlikely sounds of soul and jazz sophistication from an unlikely instrument, the Hammond B3 organ, was found dead Feb. 8 at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., by his manager, Robert Clayton. He apparently died in his sleep, though the cause of death was not immediately known.

Before Mr. Smith discovered the Hammond B3 in 1951, the organ got little respect from jazz artists, despite Fats Waller's virtuosity with the instrument. Fusing blues, R&B and gospel, Mr. Smith took the instrument where it had never gone before. As one reviewer said, he "turned the organ into almost an ensemble itself."


Jimmy Smith was designated a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the nation's highest honor in jazz. (1993 Photo Rich Pedroncelli -- AP)

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He was the primary exponent of the infectious, hip-shaking "Philadelphia sound" of the B3, often found in the clubs of Philadelphia, Baltimore and New Jersey. He performed in various ensembles, from a trio of organ, jazz and drums to high-flying organ duels with his Philadelphia proteges, Jimmy McGriff and Joey DeFrancesco.

On Jan. 7, the National Endowment for the Arts designated Mr. Smith an NEA Jazz Master, the nation's highest honor in jazz.

"Jimmy Smith transformed the organ into a jazz instrument," NEA Chairman Dana Gioia told the Associated Press. "Jazz has lost a pioneering talent, not to mention a one-of-a-kind personality."

James Oscar Smith was born in Norristown, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, to parents who were pianists. His father, who played stride piano, was his first teacher. (Most reference works give his date of birth as Dec. 8, 1925, but family members have said he was actually three years younger.)

He left school in his teens and joined the Navy, where he played piano and bass in a segregated band. When he was discharged in 1947, he used the GI Bill to attend Philadelphia's prestigious Hamilton and Ornstein schools of music, where he studied bass and piano. He also worked construction jobs and for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

In 1951, he joined Don Gardner's Sonotones, playing R&B piano. He began experimenting with the B3 and happened to catch the reigning organ king, Wild Bill Davis, at Club Harlem in Atlantic City.

"Bill had everything goin'," Mr. Smith told interviewer Pete Fallico in 1994. "He had the best stuff in those days, '50, '54, man. When you went to hear Bill, you could hear him down two blocks."

He told Fallico that he bought his first organ in 1954 and kept it in a Philadelphia warehouse while he played around with the instrument's possibilities. "I pulled out that third harmonic and there! The bulb lit up, thunder and lightning! Stars came out of the sky."

He made his New York debut at Small's Paradise in Harlem in January 1956 and signed with Blue Note Records shortly thereafter. His performance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival also was a hit.

His first album, "A New Sound, a New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ," indeed introduced a new sound. He was dubbed the Incredible Jimmy Smith and is credited with being the first jazz organist to combine the blues-drenched sounds of R&B with the more sophisticated rhythms of bebop. Among the 30 albums he recorded for Blue Note -- including collaborations with Kenny Burrell, Art Blakey, Tina Brooks and others -- were the classic "The Sermon!" (1957) and "Back at the Chicken Shack" (1960).

In 1962, he moved to Verve Records, where he was known for his collaborations with guitarist Wes Montgomery and for his 1962 recording "Walk on the Wild Side," on the album "Bashin': The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith." He also toured extensively throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

In the early 1970s, he moved to Los Angeles, where he and his wife, Lola, opened Jimmy Smith's Supper Club in the San Fernando Valley. The club closed some years later. The couple moved to Scottsdale last year; Lola Smith died of cancer a few months later.

Mr. Smith recently recorded a studio album, "Legacy," at Concord Records with DeFrancesco. It is scheduled for release Tuesday. The pair had planned a national tour.

DeFrancesco, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, recalled that Miles Davis had proclaimed Mr. Smith "the eighth wonder of the world." For the past couple of years, DeFrancesco and Mr. Smith had been getting together every Sunday afternoon in a club near their homes for jam sessions that began attracting large crowds. "He went out at the top of his game," DeFrancesco said.

"He had a spirit and a sound that comes across, and there was nothing like it," he added. "He was full of fire and soul, just the complete musician."

Survivors include a son and two daughters.


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