Clockwork organ Jazz musician Dr. Lonnie Smith
Lonnie Smith speaks of angels and heavenly voices when he talks about the beginnings of his career. “Everyone has a few angels in their life. We don’t recognize them, maybe, at first. But they are the ones that keep you on the right road. I’ve had a lot of them. Lou Donaldson was one. George Benson was another.” The idea of angelic guidance seems a natural fit for the organist who came up singing in the church, and whose trademarks are now a stately beard and handsome, sculpted turban. Smith, who appears with his group Evolution on Saturday, July 30, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center as part of the New Mexico Jazz Festival, says his main angel was the late Art Kubera, a one-time big band leader and music store owner in Smith’s hometown of Buffalo, New York. Kubera had a reputation for generosity among local musicians. Though he’s told it dozens of times before, Smith doesn’t need to be coaxed to tell the story of how he came by his first Hammond B-3 organ. “I went in to Kubera’s Music Store every day and sat at the organ until closing time. And one day, Art comes up to me and says, ‘I have to ask you a question. Why do you come in here every day and play the organ?’ And I said, ‘Sir, if I had an instrument, I could make a living.’ I was sincere about that. One day I was in there and he closed the store and he took me back to the house and there was an organ, a Hammond B-3. And in your mind, you can picture it, like the opening up of a Bible in a movie, the sun rays coming up and the heavenly voices. And Art said, if you can move it, you can have it.” Smith rounded up a pickup truck and the muscle to lift the heavy instrument and, in a driving snowstorm — “It’s like Alaska up there in Buffalo,” he told us — took it home.
Once he learned to work the Hammond’s stops — drawbars on the instrument that control the sound the organ produces — things moved quickly. Smith was a regular at Buffalo’s Pine Grill, a restaurant that featured soul-jazz combos. It’s where Smith was heard by organist Jack McDuff, who eventually connected him with guitarist Benson and saxophonist Donaldson. The three, with drummer Leo Smith, recorded Alligator Boogaloo under Donaldson’s leadership for the Blue Note label in 1967. Columbia Records took note of Smith’s work with Donaldson and signed him to record, resulting in the release of Smith’s first disc as a leader, Finger-Lickin’ Good. “Things were moving clockwise for me,” Smith explained. But his colleagues at Blue Note wanted him with them. “[Pianist] Duke Pearson called me, [Blue Note executive Francis] Wolff called me and they said, hey, we want you with us over here. I didn’t believe it, tried not to get excited until it was done. Life has too many letdowns.” The resulting deal led to Smith’s first Blue Note recordings: Think! (with trumpeter Lee Morgan and saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman), followed by Turning Point, and
Move Your Hand, all released at the tail end of the ’60s. Smith spoke of the pride he feels having worked at the label’s storied Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey studio with recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder. “No one had that Van Gelder sound. He did those recordings in three to six hours and that was it. You just go in there and call the tune. Today, they can spend months, even years at a time putting it together. It’s like Frankenstein, all the parts pasted together. Something isn’t played right? Don’t worry, they can fix it. Back then, you make a mistake? Leave it. That’s you, you’re human, you’re not supposed to be perfect. That’s what you did, have a laugh, keep on going.”
With its famous Aretha Franklin title tune, Think! heralded a practice — covering pop tunes of all sorts — that Smith has utilized throughout his career. The practice isn’t exclusive to Smith. The Hammond organ is an especially apt instrument for music with strong and seductive rhythms. And jazz musicians have mined pop music long before rock ’n’ roll. (With his propulsive, in-the-groove B-3 solo, Smith salvages an otherwise tepid version of “Ode To Billy Joe” from Donaldson’s 1967 release Mr. Shing-A-Ling.) But Smith has shown unusual, wide-ranging taste in his choice of material. Like many jazz musicians, he’s covered the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, and Jimi Hendrix. But he’s also injected his groove and shout style into the Eurythmics (“Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”) and he’s recorded an entire album of Beck’s music, Boogaloo To Beck .“I love that music. I love all kinds of music. I do those tunes because I love them. I hear something in them. A symphonic orchestra, Metallica; I hear all of it. Once I start playing a phrase or two from music like that, I can just feel where to go.”
Beginning in the 1970s, after leaving what remained of Blue Note after Francis Wolff’s death, Smith recorded a number of discs including Afro-Desia, with guitarist Benson and a young Joe Lovano on sax, The
Turbanator, and, in 2006, Jungle Soul. The constant in all this music is the groove, that undefinable quality that must be felt to be understood. Musicians speak of “finding” the groove. It doesn’t only come from backbeat and the strong rhythms of classic R&B. Listen to Smith’s version of “Willow Weep For Me” from Jungle
Soul, done at a swift, swirling waltz tempo in which one can imagine Fred Astaire circling madly with Ginger Rogers, both in formalwear, to Dr. Lonnie’s driving groove. Or hear Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance” from the same recording, Harris’ post-bop anthem mellowed out with a relaxed shing-a-ling groove. Then compare it with the title tune from
Alligator Boogaloo. It’s clear that Smith has known where to find it since the beginning of his career.
After a string of popular recordings for Music Masters, Palmetto, and Pilgrimage labels, Blue Note again came calling. “Things were still moving clockwise,” Smith said. When Don Was, leader of rock band Was (Not Was), was named head of Blue Note in 2012, he decided that Smith should be a part of the label’s revival. “It’s like I never really left,” Smith said. “Don Was knows music and he knows what he wants. He wants me, the musician, he wants the spirit in there and he don’t want me to fake it. He gives you the freedom.” Fittingly, Smith’s latest release for Blue Note, Evolution, includes his “Afrodesia,” as well as other originals and standards from Thelonious Monk and Rodgers and Hammerstein. New-thing keyboardist Robert Glasper makes an appearance, as well as a now well-known Joe Lovano. “Like I said,” Smith chuckles, “clockwise.”
Smith, now seventy-four, has recently been granted one of jazz’s greatest honors. He’s on the list of 2017 designees to receive the National Endowment For the Arts Jazz Masters award. “That’s as highly recognized as one can get in our field,” he said proudly. “The thing about it is that you’re among your friends and peers. You did pretty well for yourself if that’s the company you’re in. That means a lot.”