July Feature: Dr. Lonnie Smith
Over the years, many different instruments that were not part of the early ensembles have come to have a home in jazz. And their inclusion has added new textures and new approaches to the music. One of the more successful migrants into jazz has been the organ. From its roots in the church and early movie theaters (where an organist would provide accompaniment to silent films and entertainment in between them), the organ found a place in jazz thanks to early pioneers like Fats Waller (who had an early job in one of those movie theaters), Count Basie, Milt Buckner, and Wild Bill Davis.
The golden age of jazz organ was fueled in part by the decline of the big bands, since the organ could get such a loud and broad sound by itself and fill the role of those larger ensembles. It also fit snugly into the rhythm & blues, rock and, eventually, soul jazz styles that were emerging at the time. Jimmy Smith is largely credited with ushering in this golden age, and a slew of talented players came along with him - including Jimmy McGriff, Charles Earland, Jack McDuff, Reuben Wilson, Don Patterson, "Groove" Holmes, John Patton, Shirley Scott, and our featured artist - Dr. Lonnie Smith.
Born in Buffalo, New York, on July 3, 1942, Smith was a singer and trumpeter before turning to the organ in the late '50s. Gigs at Buffalo's Pine Grill jazz club led to an offer to join a young George Benson's group. In the mid '60s, he released his first album as leader, which led to an offer to join the band of popular soul jazz saxophonist Lou Donaldson. Smith played on a number of Blue Note hit albums with Donaldson, including the million-seller, Alligator Boogaloo, and did a series of albums under his own name for the esteemed label as well. Since his Blue Note days, Smith has appeared on over a half dozen different labels and done a diverse array of projects, including tributes to the Beatles, Hendrix, Coltrane and Beck. He's also appeared on scores of albums as a guest artist as well.
The new century has seen a new lease on life for Smith's career. It began with the 2000 release of The Turbanator, a collection of songs recorded in the '90s but previously unreleased. A series of impressive albums in a classic soul jazz vein followed, including Too Damn Hot, Jungle Soul, Rise Up, and Spiral, that put Smith at the top of today's revived jazz organ scene. Earlier this year, he launched his own label and production company and a new live trio recording is planned for later in the year.
To mark his 70th birthday, Night Train is featuring the music of Dr. Lonnie Smith - from his early recordings through classic releases, guest appearances and latest projects - throughout the entire month of July.
Dr. Smith gives a tour of his home:
The Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio with a wild version of "Come Together":
Dr. Lonnie Smith with Lou Donaldson with a live version of "Midnight Creeper":