Music Credits: Improvisations on the organ by Dr. Lonnie Smith, recorded in home December 2016.
“Alligator Bogaloo” from the album, Alligator Bogaloo, composed by Lou Donaldson and performed by Lou Donaldson Melvin Lastie, Dr. Lonnie Smith, George Benson, and Leo Morris and Idris Muhammad. Blue Note
“Play It Back” composed and performed by Dr. Lonnie Smith, from the album Evolution. Blue Note
Dr. Lonnie Smith: I didn't get into music because I wanted to be a star. I wanted to be rich because you're already rich. That's a great feeling. That's the greatest feeling, to go out and play and make people happy all around the world.
Josephine Reed: That's Dr. Lonnie Smith, organist extraordinaire and 2017 NEA Jazz Master, and this is "Art Works," the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Dr. Lonnie Smith is a master Hammond B jazz organist and composer. He's had a career that's been going on for more than 50 years and has been featured on more than 70 jazz, blues and rhythm and blues recordings. He's considered one of the creators of jazz soul funk. He's recorded classic soul jazz albums like "Think," "Move Your Hand" And "Drives" as well as album-long tributes to artists like Jimi Hendrix and Beck and he's covered everyone from the Beatles to the Eurythmics. His funky organ playing has been in demand by hip hop groups since the 1990s with bands like A Tribe Called Quest, OGC and United Future Organization sampling his beats. Dr. Lonnie Smith has received many honors and awards throughout his great career and now he's been named a 2017 NEA Jazz Master. So sit back, put up your feet and meet a musical wonder and old, wise soul, Dr. Lonnie Smith.
Josephine Reed: You were raised in Buffalo, New York.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: It's called Buffalo.
Josephine Reed: Tell me about your upbringing. Was your family musical or--?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: My mother. My mother was a vocalist and her sisters and her mother. They just sang spiritual music, Gospel music, you know. And they used to do a radio program on the weekend, you know. They would come over the house sometime and they would sing and I would join in, so I was brought up like that but I didn't play.
Josephine Reed: Now when did you start playing instruments?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Late. I started in junior, junior high. My friend, Ronald Owens, [ph?] he, him and his sister Annette, she played piano, he played trumpet. So I would go over their house. They were, like, well-to-do. Had a-- It wasn't a-- They wasn't as poor as I was, you know. But I sat over their house and sometime they had to practice and I'd wait for them and I'd hear them practicing and see them practicing. And one day we ended up in the same classroom where just about everyone in the classroom played music. And Ronald Owens had the trumpet on the seat and I looked at it in the velvet inside. It was beautiful. I picked it up and started playing. And they, they couldn't believe it, so they took me to the band room and I played it. The band room teacher says, "It looks like we got a star in here." He said, "You come down and play in the band."
Josephine Reed: And it just came naturally to you. You had never picked this up before and you just knew what to do.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: I think what happens, if you watch a kid, which a lot of families don't do, if they watch their kid, and just watch them, they'll tell you what they're going to do.
Josephine Reed: Did your mom listen to jazz?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Oh, loved-- She loved jazz, blues and gospel. She loved all of that. And she would be scatting and we would scat along together and make words to an instrumental so that, that got me going. And my uncles and everything, it was beautiful. It was beautiful. They loved jazz and I would listen to that. Not knowing that one day-- had no idea that I would meet these people and play behind them sometime, you know. So it was really great. A great experience.
Josephine Reed: You began professionally as a singer. You were part of a vocal group, called The Supremes, I might add. How was that? Was that a lot of fun for you?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: The singing was great and we used to do sock hops.
Josephine Reed: Was singing satisfying for you?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yes.
Josephine Reed: Did you feel as though you were missing something and that's why you wanted an instrument?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yes.
Josephine Reed: Okay.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: My brother was playing bass guitar and drums and guitar and I would sing. I wanted to play.
Josephine Reed: You wanted to play.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Because it looked like they were having fun.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: So I'd sing my little song and sit down and wait till the next set and sat down till time to go up again. So one day we went in a place and they had a piano in there. I got on it and you know, they don't want you to touch the piano and I did. That's how it really begun. I knew how to play the boogie-woogie, you know, stuff like that. That's how it all began.
Josephine Reed: How did you begin with the organ? What was your introduction to it?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Oh. Sal. Hello to Sal. My angel. I always say that. Everyone has angels, you know. Right from the beginning I went to a store, Art Kubera's Music Store, and I'd sit in the store every day. I'd just sit till closing time. He says, "Son, can I ask you a question?" I said, "Yes, sir." He says, "Why do you come in every day and you just sit?" I said, "Well, if I had an instrument I could work. If I could work, I could make a living." That stuck with him evidentially, so I kept going every day and I'd just sit. And one day I went in there, he closed the place up and we went to his house in the back. When he opened the door I saw this-- When you open a Bible and they show some pictures of and the sunlight form the sky, the radiate comes out. That's the way it hit me and the organ. I was sitting behind and he says, "If you can get this out, it's yours." I did. In the snow in Buffalo, you know. I was sitting in a pickup truck, my brothers and I. It was cold. Snow. I took it home. I didn't know how to cut it on. I didn't know how to play it. I didn't know anything about it. So now what do I do? <laughs>
Josephine Reed: My very question.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: So how I learned how to play was onstage. It was-- it was hard, but I did it. I got with the Sammy Bryan [ph?] Group. They heard about me in Buffalo. They called me and I went to join the group.
Josephine Reed: How old were you?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: I was about 20, 21, something like that when I first started playing. I started late. Most guys started when they were kids, you know, and I played by ear. I still today, I play by ear. The first place we went to play at was Freddie's Hurricane Lounge in Pittsburgh, George Benson's home. I stayed with Ben and we started playing behind a lot of Motown groups when they would come through, so I got the experience of that.
Josephine Reed: And that's how you were developing your organ chops.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Mm-hmm. Onstage. Onstage.
Josephine Reed: Doc, you knew right away the organ was your instrument--?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Oh, yeah.
Josephine Reed: Before you even put your hand on it?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Before I even put my hand on it. I didn't have to deviate. It's an extension. It's an extension. It's-- It says everything that I want to say that I cannot say, it'll say it when I play it. It's a passion. I have more passion now than I even did then. And it's hard to say, how can you have more passion than then? Right from the beginning, it was great.
Josephine Reed: Can you describe the sound of a Hammond B3?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Mm-hmm. It's everything. It fulfills me in my journey. It's all the elements in one, all the elements. Whatever you want it to be, it speaks that. That's why I love it, because you have to work it and it's so challenging because it, it says everything that I want it to. Everything. It just opens up. You ever hear a person that has a cold, a bad cold, and they sound like this nasal, like this <makes nasal sound>. You play the organ, it has that. Then you hit the sweet tab, [ph?] bam. You hit that little slide over here. It's that <imitates organ>. It opens up. The earth, the whole-- heavens just opens up on you. It's like the expressions. Oh, it's so beautiful. Then it quiets down and you quiet down. Oh, it comes down so nice, you know. The only instrument just you could be there and feel the vibration of it, it's so it just goes all through your body.
Josephine Reed: Now you met George Benson in Buffalo, correct, at the Pine Grill?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Pine Grill.
Josephine Reed: Okay. You were backing up go-go dancers, is that true?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: <laughs> You're terrible.
Josephine Reed: <laughs>
Dr. Lonnie Smith: You weren't supposed to say that.
Josephine Reed: I'm sorry.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yeah, we--
Josephine Reed: Was it true?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yeah. When George and I started playing, we went to New York, we had two songs, "Clockwise" and "Secret Love." We got signed with Columbia Records. But when we got signed with Columbia, we was playing on 125th and Seventh Avenue. It was called Palms Café, I think it was called. And they had go-go dancers in there. And that was rough. So when John Hammond, we knew he came in, so we said, "We're going to play some jazz now." So we started playing and John Hammond and his wife, they were sitting there and he wanted to sign us there in the club. He signed George up then he signed me also up to Columbia Records. Now, see how angels are there? Lou Donaldson was recording. I had met him in Buffalo. So he was recording and he needed someone and he, George Benson and myself and Idris Muhammad on drums and we went to record, the connection was so great right from the beginning. It felt so good. And we made a hit, "Alligator Boogaloo."
Dr. Lonnie Smith: And when Blue Note heard that they said they wanted me from Columbia. I started [ph?] calling John up, John Hammond up. Frank would be calling me and then I left Columbia and I was playing with Blue Note and the record took off. Now I'm playing with George now, George Benson, but my records started going. Now I'm playing with George but now they're calling for me to do concerts and things. So I didn't have a group, so George would go out with me and help me out then because I was going out pretty fast, you know, moving pretty fast. And it felt, I loved it but George is, we were like, we are-- see, he just called me a couple of days ago-- we were like really close and it-- it felt bad when he wasn't there. We loved playing with each other, so.
Josephine Reed: Yeah. You were part of that quartet.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yeah. That was--
Josephine Reed: Did you speak the same musical language as George?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yes. Yes. George Benson and I speak the same language. Musically, we speak the same language. Well, I started developing my sense of playing with George. I had come from, just like I said, I came from Motown and stuff, that type of-- and singing Gospels and all that stuff. So what happened, George had started playing early age, six-years-old. He was real young. I started in my twenties. So I loved jazz, so that's what happened. So we would go in the club and I would go there earlier and I would play, it's not time, [ph?] but I would play-- So when George come in, it's cold and his hands'd be all cold. He has to try to get-- catch up with me because I'm feeling good.
Josephine Reed: <laughs>
Dr. Lonnie Smith: I just start playing. Just jump onstage and start playing. So anything that he played if I could remember a little of it, I'll get it and then play it the next day by ear of what I hear, see. And that's how I learned.
Josephine Reed: When did you get to New York City?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: '63 or '64.
Josephine Reed: What was New York like musically then?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Oh. Beautiful. You could not believe it. It's like everyone was there. Everyone that you ever thought you wanted to hear or see, they were playing. Like you have a strip, even in Harlem, you had clubs, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, clubs. Boom, boom, boom, music, music, music, music. So when we got there and hit the Palms Café, we started going around and everybody would play in these clubs. Then we started playing at Count Basie's, Minton's Playhouse, all of those places, the nice clubs up in Harlem. And Downtown, Slugs and all of those nice clubs, you know. So we got pretty known and then we did the Newport Jazz Festival. John Hammond got us on there and that was it. It was like, boom, took off.
Josephine Reed: Did you schlep that organ with you--?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: <laughs>
Josephine Reed: When you went?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yes. Don't say that. Don't tell anyone that. It's a piece of furniture.
Josephine Reed: Oh, my God.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: It's a piece of furniture. It's like-- And when it was time to go, everybody said, "I'll be there in a minute. I'm going to the car. I'll be right back. I’m going to the bathroom. I'll be--" I'd be sitting there like this and holding it and I would wait and ain't nobody come, so I learned how to move it <laughs> by myself a lot. Well, a lot of times what we'd do, we'd go in the towns and we would get people to help us. You would get drunks and everything to help us, you know, winos. Give them a few dollars, two or three dollars, and they would help. But quite naturally, you would, like, "Don't do-- Uh-uh-- Uh.. I'll do it myself," you know. Because they'd be high and they'd be trying to hold it and it's rough.
Josephine Reed: You signed with Blue Note and you played with great musicians in sessions and also as a leader. Can you describe first what Blue Note Records was like then?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Real easy. One word, the best. It was the best and still is. All the greats were there. Everyone, practically that you can name, they were there. And you can't beat that. As a youngster, I just loved playing music. You played because you love it. I didn't get into music because I wanted to be a star or I wanted to be rich because you're already rich. It's a great feeling. That's the greatest feeling, to go out and play, make people happy all around the world, everywhere you go, places that you never thought you would be. I don't see myself like some people see you. You know what I'm saying? They see you as this icon or this person like that and you're, "I wonder who they're talking about?" <laughs> You know? It's a great feeling but I don't see that. I don't see it, I really don't.
Josephine Reed: What do you see?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: I just see just like you are me and we're all the same. We get up there and play, it's like a fire or a flame that goes through my body and I get so much enjoyment out of that. You can't get paid better than that.
Josephine Reed: Let me ask you, when you're playing at a concert, are you in conversation with the other musicians? Are you in conversation with the audience? Is it both?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Both. Because, see, there are some musicians play for themselves. <laughs> They could care less if you're up there or not because it's all they want to hear is themselves. <laughs> You know?
Josephine Reed: Oh, yeah, I do.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: And it's like, "Look at me." No. If I hire you, I want to hear you. I don't hire you just to back me up and you know. I enjoy backing you up too. I want to hear you. Give a person a chance. Give someone else a chance. And it's beautiful when you're hearing that. It's beautiful. See, I always thought if you can't go back to that place, you did something wrong. You better get your act together, you know, because you can stay at home and do that. So many people, they go out and they don't care. Seem when I first started, George'll tell you that, I used to play everything but what I did on record. I didn't want to play that. I did not want to play that because I just didn't want to play it. I personally like going here, going there and doing this and I don't want to play the same thing that I did. I don't want to-- I just don't want to do that.
Josephine Reed: When you're playing, because you improvise so much, nothing sounds the same way twice, that must be challenging for the musicians who work with you. I'm sure rewarding, but.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: <laughs> Oh, boy. They, <laughs> they'll tell you, it's not easy. My hat's off to the musicians that play with me because I don't never know where I'm going. I'm there at that-- in the moment, so it's so much fun. Most music, [ph?] they want to play the song that we did exactly like that. How? How am I going to do that? <laughs> I can't do that. That was done. How do you feel, play it the way you feel. Let me feel you. We can get into that, too, and that's the beauty of it. You know, it don't have to be that way all the time. It just don't have to be. Be open.
Josephine Reed: I've seen you play and there are moments where I would swear you're surprised by what's being played.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yes. Yes. Yes. That's exactly what happens. I feel the same way <laughs> that the audience feels <laughs> at that moment, because, "Oh, okay." It's- it's so much fun when that happens to me. It's like, "Oh, that's okay. If it doesn't, mmm, well, it feels so good."
Josephine Reed: And because you don't write music, like, because you compose--
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yeah. I compose. Mm-hmm.
Josephine Reed: So teaching the music that you compose, you do it by demonstrating--?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yes.
Josephine Reed: I see.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yes. When you're teaching, you're always listening to the artist who's playing. And you can help them by the way they're playing, you're saying, "That's' not right." How can you tell them that's not right when they went to school? They know the correct fingering and they got this music down. That's not quite right, you know. I say, "You didn't really mean what you just played, did you?" "Yes. What do you mean?" I'll say, "Play it again." And they play it and I say, "You didn't mean that. You just played it because you know that." "Hmm. I can hear that." "Just here, play here." You can't read that. I don't care how much studying you do, you can't read that.
Josephine Reed: You've played with all variations of bands. Big bands, quartets-- But you come back to the trio a lot, organ, guitar, drums. Can you talk about that configuration and how that works so well for you?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: I like that. I love the trio because it leaves a lot of space, a lot of space to experiment and play with.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: When you got more than two or three people up there, you got to be careful because if I got, if I got 17 pieces, I want to hear everybody. And so you're not going to hear me very much because I'm going to let you play. I love-- "Go ahead and play," you know, "I want to hear you. Play." See. But with a trio or a duo, you got to work. You have to work. And I can go this way without worrying about are they going to make it with me. Are they going to turn here with me or go there, you know? Are they going to fall off the cliff? So many horns, they say, "Oh. Oh. Oh, you know, just get in there and have fun." I love horns. I love the sound of them. It sounds so great. But you better have the music together when you're playing with horns. And you don't want it too tight so it sounds sterile, you know. Want it with a loose feeling, a happy feeling that it's breathing.
Josephine Reed: You've covered people outside of jazz but you've done tribute albums to, you know, Jimi Hendrix music and Beck. What's the story behind those albums?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Mmm. To make a long story short, I'm a person who loves all music. A lot of musicians will play a song, they're thinking about a hit. I think about a song-- I love that song. I want to play that song. Aww, that's a beautiful song. And I play it. Because I can hear myself play it before I even touch it, I can hear what it's supposed to sound like. Every genre of music is important to me. Country Western, rock, metallic, all of them, they're just as important as I am. That's the beauty in it. You might not like it but each one of them got something, a story. Tell their story. You got a story to tell. You might not like it. Why? Why don't you like that song? Hmm. You don't like that song because is it the beat? Is it the way they sing? Take that song and put your feeling into it. Mmm. Can you do that? Some people it's hard to do that because they could only see it that way. "Mmm, that's' not the way it go." "Yes, it does." <laughs> Again, it's me that's the way I go, so that's the way it's going to be done. Take it your way and that's the fun again.
Josephine Reed: You happen to be one of the most sampled jazz artists around.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Oh, that's terrible.
Josephine Reed: The Beastie Boys. A Tribe Called Quest. Wu-Tang Clan. When did you first-- How did you find out you were being sampled?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: <laughs> You don't want to hear this. These are statements back, people, you know, where you made money off of this, you did this and you read it and you say, "What? What song is this?" And then one year said, "Oh. That's what that is."
Josephine Reed: Hip hop has really reimagined a lot of your music--
Dr. Lonnie Smith: That's--
Josephine Reed: It's really something.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Now, you-- That's, you can't beat that. Because you're hearing another view, another side. That's why other music is great. That's what they hear. You have to live the life and play that and that's what's so beautiful about it.
Josephine Reed: You returned to Blue Note after 45 years. "Evolution."
Dr. Lonnie Smith: We never left each other. We never left. We was always together. Yeah, that was a happy occasion.
Josephine Reed: And Don Was, as you mentioned, was the producer.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Very good. Very good producer.
Josephine Reed: You know, the first cut on the album, "Evolution," is 14 minutes long.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: It is.
Josephine Reed: That's big.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: That is big. I had no idea on planning, but then again, see, that was Don Was, he didn't care. That's the way we used to do. You play if it feels good, let it go. If it doesn't feel good, then you can get off of it, you know.
Josephine Reed: And was that the first time you played with Robert Glasper?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yes. I knew him, but that's the first time we ever played.
Josephine Reed: How was that experience?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Nice. Very nice. What it gets you is like these are young people, young guys. They're like my grandsons, you know. It's like when you hear them play and then give you the feeling that you want on the song, "Hmm, okay. You been listening." It's like they're very great musicians to grab that stuff like that. Those songs, he did a wonderful job. Young guys, they're something else today.
Josephine Reed: Yeah. He's, what, mid-thirties or something I think.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Yeah, a baby.
Josephine Reed: Yeah.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: That's a baby. <laughs>
Josephine Reed: What advice would you have for a student who really is thinking about a career in jazz?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: I'd say I don't think for them to take it lightly because it's a struggle. It's something they have to believe in. The real truth about being a musician, it isn't easy. It's work because it's not at all like they might think it is. Enjoy yourself. Therefore, when they hear something the guy playing and it sounds like, "Oh, wow. Oh, I wish I could play like that." No you don't. No, you do not. Play what you know, play what you feel. And you'll be happier. Because you learn things from everyone; everyone that you hear, you learn different things and that's the beauty in it. And they're going to get depressed. They're going to play something that they're going to, like, everyone gets to that thing where they don't enjoy themselves. You play and you say, "Aww, I sound terrible." But they know, stop that. You don't give up then. Because that's your learning space. That's where you push a little harder. Be hard on yourself.
Josephine Reed: Doc, for you, what's the hardest part of a musician's life?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Travel. They pay me for traveling. Traveling is so difficult. And if you've been traveling like I have all these many years, it gets harder and harder. So just to travel. Sometime you have to go straight to sound check or you might have to go and play as soon as you get there. You can't get a chance to go to the hotel. You go to the hotel when you're finished after you sign autographs and loading the equipment and stuff, it's early in the morning. And you have to get up and go to the next, drive to the next country or whatever. It's rough. But as soon as you get there and you play for the people, that's where your energy comes. It's like, "Wow." It's worth it. That's the beauty in it. But they're getting the wrong impression-- If they think it's going to be just a great run, it's not like that. If they're out there for any other reason than to play. Regardless of what happens around a certain part of the year, it gets slow. And slow, are you able to hang?
Josephine Reed: Being named 2017 NEA Jazz Master, what does that mean?
Dr. Lonnie Smith: What it means is it's the greatest award you can get. You've been represented by people who love you and love your music and watching and listening to you for many years and they show their appreciation. You can't get a better feeling than that. What an honor because you're not thinking, you're just doing-- doing what you love and enjoying it. What better pay than to get this really a prestigious honor of being among the greats that's out here and that's doing the same thing and keeping music alive. And we have someone that's looking out for us, somebody that's hearing us. You cannot beat that. I’m very proud. Very, very proud.
Josephine Reed: Thank you so much. Many congratulations.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Well, thank you.
Josephine Reed: And it was such a pleasure to talk to you.
Dr. Lonnie Smith: Thank you. It's a pleasure.
Josephine Reed: That was 2017 NEA Jazz Master, Dr. Lonnie Smith. Come and celebrate Doc on April 3rd in Washington, D.C. at the NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert. It's free and it's fun. The festivities begin at 7:30 at the Kennedy Center. For information and free tickets, go to kennedycenter.org. You've been listening to "Art Works," produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the "Art Works" blog or follow us @neaarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
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