Jimmy Smith playing his Hammond B3 organ was a remarkable sight. As he moved his feet over the bass pedals, hammered chords with his left hand, and hovered over the high notes with his right, he made a jubilant sound that blended jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, bebop, and even gospel into an exhilarating stew that became known as soul jazz or funk.
Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Smith first learned piano and studied at the Orstein School of Music in Philadelphia. In 1951, he switched to the Hammond B3 and soon attracted a following. Although he wasn’t the first jazz musician to play the organ, he was the man who took it out of the church and theatre and permanently put it in the jazz club. He was the first to break ground with the instrument in a career that spanned five decades. His accomplishments are all the more remarkable when you consider that he didn’t start playing the organ until he was twenty-seven.
As Smith’s career progressed, his sound became formulaic and routine, but his work in the late 1950s and early 1960s was exciting, and many of his best albums are from this period, on Blue Note. He recorded thirty in total for the label, from his 1956 New Sounds on the Organ to 1963, when he left the label for Verve. He recorded in a variety of settings for Blue Note and worked with some of the major players of the day, including guitarist Kenny Burrell, trumpet player Lee Morgan, and sax players Lou Donaldson, Tina Brooks, Jackie McLean, Ike Quebec, and Stanley Turrentine.
His finest recording for the label was 1968’s The Sermon [Blue Note #24541]. On paper, it looks as if it was doomed to fail. It’s an album with just three tracks—the longest of which exceeds twenty minutes—featuring the Hammond B3 organ, which until then was most often thought of as a novelty instrument played at roller rinks. Yet everything about it works.
The Sermon delivers a steady stream of soul jazz, with repeated hooks and big, fat, greasy chords. The title song, a twelve-bar blues, was Smith’s tribute to one of his Blue Note label mates, pianist Horace Silver. The groove is locked in by Smith and builds slowly, solo after solo.
First a solid foundation is laid down by Art Blakey on drums, as Smith preaches with a down-home sound, and then Kenny Burrell comes in with a soulful guitar solo, Tina Brooks steps in to wail on tenor sax, and Lee Morgan plays a rich solo on trumpet. Blue Note regular Loud Donaldson carries the next solo on alto sax, and lastly Smith brings it home.
“J.O.S.” is from an earlier session done in the summer of 1957. It is a raw, blues-based potboiler, with appearance by soloists George Coleman on alto sax and Lee Morgan on trumpet. Smith has a funky presence that punctuates the song.
On the last selection, Burrell, Morgan, and Blakey return for a version of the beautiful “Flamingo.” Morgan plays the main solo on trumpet. His sound is open and warm; Smith lays down a nice bed to walk on
Master of the Hammond, Jimmy Smith had many imitators, followers, and fans, and anyone today who plays jazz on the organ is a direct descendant of Smith. He was the first to develop a jazz vocabulary on the instrument.