Lonnie Smith obituary | Jazz

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Few Hammond organ players encourage bar staff in jazz clubs to stop clinking bottles for fear of piercing an almost inaudible fragile sound environment – the ingenious Hammond B3s having started their life in the 1930s in as portable props to awaken righteousness for holy preachers on the road – but achieving that effect by reducing the volume of his roaring instrument to a whisper was Lonnie Smith’s overnight work.

Smith, who died at the age of 79 of pulmonary fibrosis, was the intriguing antithesis of a showman, although he played an instrument made for bravery and never went public without a colorful turban that had no discernible cultural or religious significance. Known as Dr. Lonnie Smith, he had no better claim to the title of “Doctor” than loving the nickname fans and his colleagues gave him for making them feel good.

Like ’60s jazz organ pioneers Jimmy Smith, Bill Doggett, and Brother Jack McDuff, Smith could certainly crank up the volume to 11 whenever he wanted, but his relaxed penchant for taking roundabout routes to great points. culminating on his own original hooks and themes was to endow him with some of the best-known jazz, soul, R&B, pop and hip-hop artists of the next six decades.

Smith started his recording career in the 1960s with funky soul-jazz luminaries including trumpeter Lee Morgan, guitarist (and ultimately soul song star) George Benson and rhythm and blues saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman. In the 1960s and 1970s he also toured with Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Grover Washington Jr, as well as soul artists Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick.

He then spent his 60s and 70s in the live-playing company of fluid originals of the genre from Robert Glasper to jazz, classical and opera singer Alicia Olatuja and – on his 2021 album Breathe – the punk performer. Iggy Pop. Beginning his career as a gospel and doo-wop singer as a child, Smith ended it as a jazz master of the National Endowment for the Arts – but as a master of a discipline he primarily had learned in late night jams, non-rehearsal recording sessions. , and a shared wisdom about how exploratory and collectively popular ways of making music can coexist.

Lonnie Smith learned to be a versatile artist with a wide range of collaborators Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Lonnie was born in the Buffalo suburb of Lackawanna, New York, where he was raised by his mother, Beulah Mae Early, and a stepfather, Charles Smith. His mother, grandmother and aunt performed in a gospel quartet. The boy sang in vocal groups around Buffalo and led his own group called the Supremes long before the name rocked the world when a trio of young singers from Motown adopted it.

In addition to singing, Smith played the trumpet and tuba in high school and hung out at an instrument store owned by a music fan called Art Kubera. One day, the teenager confided in Kubera that he was sure he could live on music if he had his own instrument. Kubera showed him a new Hammond B3 organ in the back of the store and told him that if he could move the 200-kilo monster somewhere else, he could keep it.

This is exactly what Smith did, he learned on his own a style merging the church organ traditions and pioneer jazz of Hammond’s pioneers, and in less than a year he was playing professionally in a Buffalo’s jazz and rhythm and blues haunt, the Pine Grill. Among the stars who featured were organist McDuff, saxophonist Lou Donaldson and Benson, then brilliant improvising instrumentalist before his soul-vocal fame emerged.

Benson hired Smith to associate him with his mid-1960s recordings (It’s Uptown and Cookbook) and the organist launched his own career as a leader with the album Finger-Lickin ‘Good (1967). He also accompanied Donaldson – an association that brought Smith greater fame through his presence on Donaldson’s dance hit, Alligator Bogaloo, which sold one million sales in 1967, then his own contract with Blue Note Records, which produced between 1968 and 1970 the impactful succession of soul-jazz albums. Think !, move your hand, your turning point and your workouts.

Lonnie Smith in concert with the Jazzinvaders in Rotterdam

Think! expanded the familiar range of the jazz-organ trio to include Morgan, Newman and a Latin-jazz percussion section (there was also a larger repertoire, covering hits by Hugh Masekela and Aretha Franklin, as well as new originals), and Blue Note albums sold well with a young rhythm and blues audience as well as a jazz audience.

After parting ways with Blue Note in 1970, Smith recorded for smaller labels, applying his contagious sound, in ensembles ranging from trio to big band, to music by the Beatles, Stylistics, Eurythmics and others. rock and soul stars.

He retired from music regularly in the 1980s, but returned to recording in 1993 with an impressive jazz tribute to John Coltrane (Afro Blue, with guitarist John Abercrombie), and the same band celebrated Jimi Hendrix’s music on two albums, released in 1994 and 1995. Smith’s stature is on the rise again, fueled by the enthusiasm of the hip-hop generation to cite their first hits – notably with the sample of A Tribe Called Quest taken from its 1970 version of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ Spinning Wheel.

As he reached his sixties, Smith again became a popular club, now often pairing new original tracks with standard tunes more traditionally rooted in jazz, sometimes partnering with Donaldson and collaborating with imaginative young guitarists including the New Yorker Peter Bernstein and Jonathan Kreisberg.

In 2012 he formed his own label, Pilgrimage Records, but returned to Blue Note in 2015, and topped a long list of citations with his NEA jazz masters award, in 2017, the highest jazz honor in the United States. .

That year, on her 75th engagement anniversary at Jazz Standard in New York City, Smith recorded most of her latest album, Breathe, with a classy group including Kreisberg, Olatuja and saxophonist John Ellis. It was released by Blue Note in 2021, with its offbeat-booked live song list by a studio duo with Iggy Pop on songs including Donovan’s Sunshine Superman and Smith’s 1969 hit, Move Your Hand. “I love the way it sounded,” Smith told The New York Times in March, remembering the meeting. “Natural.”

Smith is survived by his partner and manager, Holly Case, four daughters, Lani, Chandra, Charisse and Vonnie, and one son, Lonnie Jr. Another daughter, Netta, died in 2016.

Lonnie Smith, jazz organist, born July 3, 1942; September 28, 2021


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