Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

  1. A
  2. B
  3. C
  4. D
  5. E
  6. F
  7. G
  8. H
  9. I
  10. J
  11. K
  12. L
  13. M
  14. N
  15. O
  16. P
  17. Q
  18. R
  19. S
  20. T
  21. U
  22. V
  23. W
  24. X
  25. Y
  26. Z

Smith, Jimmy (James Jr.)

Jimmy Smith brought the Hammond B3 into jazz almost singlehandedly. His groundbreaking style on the instrument, at a time when electronics were little more than a musical curiosity, irrevocably linked the organ’s sound to blues, jazz and soul for future generations.

James Oscar Smith was born on December 8, 1928 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. His father, James Smith Sr., was a plasterer by trade. Both of Jimmy’s parents played the piano, but it was James Sr. who steered his son towards a career in music.

Jimmy and his brother learned the art of plastering early on so they could help their father in his work. Jimmy left school in the seventh grade and worked full-time to help support the family after his father developed knee problems.

At age fifteen. Smith joined the United States Navy. After his discharge, he returned to Philadelphia and enrolled in the Ornstein School of Music with the help of the G.I. Bill. While enrolled at the school, Smith studied the fundamentals of the piano and bass. Somehow he managed to complete a substantial amount of work at the school without learning how to read music.

During the late 1940s, Smith played what he called “bump piano” at Philadelphia jam sessions. This meant that if he played the same note, riff, or line as another musician, he got bumped from the piano. Smith began to weary of this competitive climate, and following a stint playing piano in Don Gardner’s Sonotones, he began to experiment with the organ. After seeing Wild Bill Davis play at Philadelphia's Harlem Club, Smith started to seriously consider the organ as his alternative to the piano, an instrument on which he could develop his own sound.

By 1951, the organ was Smith’s primary instrument. Since Hammond organs were expensive and hard to come by, Smith financed one with the aid of a local Philadelphia loan shark. Payment was due every Saturday night, which Smith faithfully paid each week.

Smith continued to work with his father, plastering all over the Philadelphia metro area. It was through this association that Smith was able to secure a warehouse for storing his organ. He would sit down and sometimes eat breakfast and lunch at the keyboard until he had accomplished what he set out to do for that day on the organ. Smith used a diagram for the bass pedals so he did not have to look at his feet.

After spending more than a year in the woodshed, Smith began to play gigs around Philadelphia with a trio. With the help of singer Babs Gonzalez, he secured an engagement at Smalls Paradise in New York. In January of 1956, Smith began his date at the Harlem club, and Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records, offered him a contract that same night he heard him play.

Smith recorded profusely for Blue Note from 1956 up through the early 1960s. He released the albums Champ, The Incredible Jimmy Smith on the Organ, Homecookin', and Back at the Chicken Shack.

Smith’s style, dubbed ‘soul jazz,’ was so successful that it attracted many imitators, and Blue Note created a specific marketing division to promote Smith's recordings. 1958's The Sermon featured an all star line up that included trumpeter Lee Morgan, trombonist Curtis Fuller, guitarist Kenny Burrell, and drummer Art Blakey.

In 1966 Smith teamed up with guitarist Wes Montgomery to release several albums for Verve Records, including Jim and Wes: The Dynamic Duo and Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes.

Smith also combined musical efforts with saxophonist/arranger Oliver Nelson to produce 1962's Bashin': The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith which featured the hit cover "Walk on the Wild Side”

Smith's album The Boss, which was released in 1968 featured George Benson on guitar and drummer Donald Bailey covering the song "This Guy's In Love With You." Smith’s musical output slowed In the 1970s as he bounced from label to label, but he still managed to release landmark recordings such as the 1972 live album Root Down. In 1993, the hiphop group The Beastie Boys sampled the title track "Root Down (And Get It)”and used it for their song, also called "Root Down."

After a number of lean years, during which he bounced from label to label, Smith returned to a reconstituted Blue Note in 1986 to record Go For Whatcha Know with Kenny Burrell, Stanley Turrentine and bassist Buster Williams. He also formed a close bond with organist Joey DeFrancesco, with whom he recorded Incredible in 1999. In 2001, Smith released Dot Com Blues for Verve Records.

In January of 2005, Smith was named a Jazz Master by the United States National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor for jazz musicians Smith and DeFrancesco were schedule to perform together at Yoshi’s in Oakland, California, when the elder organist passed away at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona from natural causes.

Select Discography

as Jimmy Smith

Champ (Blue Note, 1956)

The Sermon (Blue Note, 1958)

Back at the Chicken Shack (Blue Note, 1960)

Organ Grinder Swing (Verve, 1965)

The Boss (Verve, 1969)

Root Down (Verve, 1972)

with Wes Montgomery

The Dynamic Duo (Verve, 1966)

The Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes (Verve, 1966)

Contributor: Jared Pauley