Jimmy Smith made the Hammond organ one of the most popular sounds in jazz beginning in the mid-1950’s.
Before Jimmy Smith, the electric organ had been nearly a novelty in jazz; it was he who made it an important instrument in the genre and influenced nearly every subsequent notable organist in jazz and rock, including Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, Larry Young, Shirley Scott, Al Kooper and Joey DeFrancesco.
By 1955 — which coincidentally was the year Hammond introduced its most popular model, the B-3 — he had an organ trio with a new sound that would thereafter become the model for groups in what became known as “organ rooms,” the urban bars up and down the East Coast specializing in precisely the kind of blues-oriented, swinging, funky music that Mr. Smith epitomized. He continued touring and recording until just before his death.
Born in 1928, Mr. Smith grew up in a musical family in Norristown, Pa., near Philadelphia; by his early teens he was competently playing stride piano and performing as a dancer in a team with his father, a day-laboring plasterer who also played piano at night.
He left school in the eighth grade, never to return, and joined the Navy at the age of 15. When he finished his service in 1947, he played professionally and studied music for two years on the G.I. bill at the Ornstein School of Music.
In the early 1950’s he worked around Philadelphia, playing rhythm and blues with Don Gardner’s Sonotones. In 1952, or perhaps 1953, he met Wild Bill Davis, the organ player who pioneered the organ-trio format, at a club. Mr. Smith asked him how long it would take to learn the organ; Davis replied that it would take years to learn the pedals alone. (In Mr. Smith’s retelling, the number of years varied between 4 and 15.) Playing piano at night and practicing organ during the day, Mr. Smith studied a chart of the instrument’s 25 foot pedals and claimed that he played fluent walking-bass lines with his feet within three months.
By 1955 he was on his way to making his new organ trio sound pervasive.
Like many other great jazz musicians, Mr. Smith insisted that the key to finding his own sound was through studying musicians who did not play his instrument.
“While others think of the organ as a full orchestra,” he wrote in a short piece for The Hammond Times in 1964, “I think of it as a horn. I’ve always been an admirer of Charlie Parker, and I try to sound like him. I wanted that single-line sound like a trumpet, a tenor or an alto saxophone.”
He also made heavy use of the B-3’s “percussion” sound, a circuit controlled by one of its drawbar switches that gives it a leaner tone, closer to that of a piano.
Partly through the agency of Babs Gonzalez, the singer and radio disc jockey, Mr. Smith was signed to the Blue Note label, making his first albums for the label in 1956; some well-received gigs that year at the Cafe Bohemia in New York heightened the excitement about his new sound.
He made many popular records for Blue Note and Verve, among them “Groovin’ at Small’s Paradise,” “The Cat” (with the arranger Lalo Schifrin), a few records with the guitarist Wes Montgomery and in 1965 his vocal version of “Got My Mojo Workin’,” arranged by Oliver Nelson.