Dr. Lonnie Smith Shows Off Jazz Organ Riffs, Turban at Dizzy's

by Patrick Cole, Bloomberg News
June 27, 2008

June 27 (Bloomberg) -- As he sits in the green room wearing a black turban and a smile, Dr. Lonnie Smith scoffs at claims that the Hammond B-3 organ he's played for more than 40 years is outdated.

``I love the `B-3' because you're the bassist, the orchestra and the soloist,'' the white-bearded Smith said in an interview at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in Manhattan before digging into a fragrant plate of chicken salad. ``The organ gives me all the elements of the earth, the sunshine, the rainbows, the birds, the thunder. It has all of that.''

Since he was named jazz's top organist by DownBeat magazine in 1969, Smith, 65, has been one of the instrument's top standard bearers. While the electronic keyboard's invasion of the music world in the 1970s sent many Hammond organs to garage sales and storage bins, Smith clung to his descendant of the pipe organ invented by clockmaker Laurens Hammond in the mid-1930s.

``You know, the Hammond B-3 was really the first synthesizer,'' he said with a wink while clutching a jewel- studded cane. (The Hammond is equipped with dozens of ``tone wheels'' that spin in front of electromagnetic devices to create a pipe organ's sound.)

As a child growing up in Lackawanna, New York, south of Buffalo, Smith originally wanted to be a vocalist since most family members sang gospel music in church. Then he picked up a trumpet and ``started messing around with it,'' and at first he thought it would be his instrument.

Sax-Playing Friend

The Hammond stole his heart when he went to the home of childhood friend and budding saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. and played his mother's organ. (Washington died of a heart attack in 1999).

``Oh, man, the organ,'' Smith said in a whisper, recalling the first time he sampled the Hammond. ``It feels like a flame when I play the organ. It feels like electricity going through my body from the feet up.''

To give his quartet that authentic sound of the 1950s, when the Hammond organ was in its heyday, Smith lured tenor saxophone veteran David ``Fathead'' Newman into his fold. Newman, 75, a distinguished member of the gospel-influenced hard bop school of jazz, has played with legends ranging from Charlie Parker to Ray Charles.

``I know that if `Fathead' is here, it's going to sound great because he's not going to overplay songs with a bunch of notes,'' Smith said. ``He's going to play notes with taste. It's going to be good.'' Guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Fukushi Tainaka join Smith and Newman.

At Dizzy's, the quartet will play some jazz standards, some selections from Smith's most recent CD, ``Jungle Soul'' (Palmetto Records, 2006), and some songs for a new untitled CD. For that album, Smith recorded an organ-infused version of ``Let 'em In,'' a Paul McCartney hit from the 1970s, and ``Come Together,'' a classic Beatles tune.

``We're not playing for ourselves,'' he said. ``We play to the people. You watch your audience. If they're not moving or tapping their feet, then you're doing something wrong.''

Smith performs tonight through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center, 60th Street at Broadway, Manhattan. Information: +1-212-258-9595; http://www.jalc.org/dccc.