G. Bruce Boyer on Jimmy Smith

Posted by: on Aug 31, 2011 | No Comments

In addition to being a master of all things sartorial and stylish, G. Bruce Boyer is a great lover of jazz music.  We spoke about this last week, and he kindly offered to contribute some thoughts to Simply Refined on the great jazz organist Jimmy Smith.  Enjoy:

There are some major musical instruments, instruments for which a great deal of music has been written, that just don’t seem to lend themselves to jazz. The three that come to mind instantly are the violin, organ, and accordian. One can theorize that, because jazz has almost always historically been the purview of the underclass, these instruments were not readily available or embraced. I’m not deliriously happy with that theory, but it is true there have been damned few jazz virtuosos on these instruments. Stephane Grapelli and Stuff Smith would certainly qualify on violin, as would Joe Venuti and Jean-Luc Ponty. Popular jazz accordianists are as rare as hen’s teeth. For me, Art Van Damme stands out, as do the two great Zydeco stars Boozoo Chavez and Clifton Chenier.

More jazz musicians have tried their skill at the electric organ – here we may suppose because more jazz musicians played piano –  but few have excelled. Fats Waller played organ in movie palaces to accompany the films being shown, and taught Count Basie the technique while the young Basie literally sat at his feet to understand how the pedals worked. There are a number of great Rock-influencing musicians who have played jazz organ: Bill Doggett, Dr. John, Wild Bill Davis, and Billy Preston. If you add in Richard “Groove” Holmes, Herbie Hancock, Jimmy McGriff, and Johnny “Hammond” Smith you’ve got a pretty good sampling.

And then there’s Jimmy Smith (1925 – 2005). In a class by himself.

Jimmy Smith grew up in Norristown, PA., a blue-collar working class suburb of Philadelphia. He came to prominence early, playing in clubs by the time he was 17, and stayed there. His blistering style made him the most influential jazz musician on the organ in the 20th Century. Someone called him the Charlie Parker of the Hammond, and it’s not a bad description. His creativity and virtuosity, sheer exuberance and wild flights of blurringly fast runs have never been bettered, never even equalled. But he could also play so mournfully it makes you cry; witness his opening to “Slaughter on tenth Avenue,” or the incomparable “I’ll Close My Eyes.” When Jimmy Smith sat down at that imposing keyboard, what came out is a whirling, undulating, moaning wall of blues, swing, and bebop that truly makes a joyous noise and lifts the soul.

Funnily enough, he was never just for aficionados. Over twenty of his jazz albums crossed over to the pop charts in his long career, and his hits are still well-known and continue to enthrall: songs such as “Walk on the Wild Side,” “The Cat,” “Funky Broadway,” “Organ Grinder’s Swing,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” “Got My Mojo Workin’,”  and “The Champ.”  Virtually every jazz combo at one time or another had these classics in their repertoire.

My favorite Jimmy Smith album is the towering “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”  The title song itself is a nine-minute, two-part masterpiece, a virtual cathedral of sound that struts and blares, howls and moans and shakes the place apart like Joshua at Jericho. It’s easily the most powerfully driving number you’ll ever hear, perhaps only equalled by Lionel Hampton’s original version of “Flying Home” with Illinois Jacquet on tenor sax. The album additionally contains the memorably swinging jazz version of Richard Rogers classic “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” and the hippest rendition of “John Brown’s Body” ever recorded.

You can wait around and hope, but you’ll never hear anyone like Jimmy Smith again.

-G. Bruce Boyer




Prayer Meetin’: Jimmy Smith with Stanley Turrentine (Blue Note)

Ultimate Jimmy Smith (Verve)

Jimmy Smith: Walk on the Wild Side (Verve)

Jimmy Smith: Standards (Blue Note)

Got My Mojo Workin’ (Verve)

Hoochie Coohie Man (Verve)

Organ Grinder Swing (Verve)

The Incredible Jimmy Smith (Verve)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Verve)

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