Jimmy Smith has
big hands...and feet too.
In the beginning was the Hammond B-3 organ.
It had no computer chips or hard drives or loops or samples. There was none of that sissy
laptop, miniaturized, compact stuff. There was only the big B-3 in all its meaty, manly
glory and, as any roady will attest, all its tonnage. Add a Leslie tone cabinet and, on
any given gig night, muscles were strained, backs were sprained. Quite a load.
Any musician fortunate enough to play in a band with a B-3, but too unfortunately poor to
have roadies on the payroll, knew what he was in for when the gang arrived at the gig. It
was backbreaking work before the musicianly work began, and carrying the thing meant all
members of the ensemble had to look out for one another. I once mashed the already
permanently crippled third finger of my left hand when one of us misstepped on the
stairway to some now unremembered ballroom in New England. That's a pretty important
finger for a bass player to lose. My memory of the rest of the evening has to do with
regular shots of bourbon, marijuana in the parking lot, and the increasing certainty that
my notion of hell as that which you live through before you die is true.
But, despite a pretty hard bump on the concrete steps, the old B-3 never burped.
The un-synthesizer, that's what the B-3 was. It was subtle, sometimes contrary, but always
equipped to serve the tune. To be sure, it couldn't be made to sound like a trumpet or a
trombone or a violin; the very idea was ridiculous. That's why there are trumpet and
trombone and violin manufacturers and the dedicated, music-smitten people who go to the
trouble of learning to play those instruments. But Robert Moog and his groundbreaking
synthesizer came along in 1965 and changed all that and, at least in the world of jazz,
something that had to do with texture and timbre got elbowed to the rear of the music. The
deep, inexplicable emotions that jazz always had aroused in me became strangers. The
listening experience became clinical, almost sterile. And when one of my keyboard heroes,
the sublime Herbie Hancock, jumped into synthesized music, torso and all, I was dismayed
and in despair.
The only working musician I can think of who has given synthesized, computerized
jazz-related music a patina of possibility is Joe Zawinul. In my jazz world, Zawinul is
the only musician to be trusted with high musical technology.
However, after the collective unconscious of music lovers evaluated the B-3 and saw that
it was good, the B-3 begat Jimmy Smith. And Smith has dwelt in the land of Hammond for a
very long time.
>From the 1950s to today, the 73-year-old master of the Hammond has demonstrated
consistently that the B-3 is relevant in the jazz context, and has shown how a musician
who thoroughly understands and commands his instrument can turn that instrument into
something more than a sideman's tool.
And that's because Jimmy Smith has big ears, ears that have assimilated all the usual jazz
influences and the variations thereupon, brought via some of his periodic partners, people
with names like Jackie McLean, Kenny Burrell, Stanley Turrentine, Lou Donaldson, Oliver
Nelson and Lee Morgan.
And he has big hands to divide the duties between the chordal left, to keep those tonic
holes filled, and the melodic right, to push and push and push that tune into a corner
where it has no choice but to break through into yet grander vistas of improvisational
possibility, and then race home, leaving the listener in the throes of a sublime
And he has big feet, to hold down the bottom on that B-3 pedal pedestal, so that he seems
not only to play, but to dance, each limb serving the music in a way that calls into
service both mind and body. If Jimmy Smith were an octopus, there'd be no need for
He's been working out on the Hammond since 1951 and, I am happy to note that, after a
period of questionable musical decisions, made, most likely, by the suits who ran Verve in
the late '60s, and an on-again, off-again period in the '70s and '80s, he's still dancing
across those pedals and touring periodically.
Recordings? Take your pick. His catalogue is rich in the soulful jazz he purveys and, like
an O. Henry story, there always seems to be at least one strange twist to be found as he
corners that tune.
My personal favorite is 1960's "Back At The Chicken Shack" on Blue Note, but
there are scores of others, many still in print, some reissued, and there are compilations
of his work available from Blue Note, Verve, Polygram and others. Check your local music
And don't forget to listen for the unique sound he harnessed from the big Hammond B-3, the
king of all the electric keyboards. The sound isn't sterile, and the clinically-minded
should just stay away.