NEA Statement on the Death of NEA Jazz Master Dr. Lonnie Smith
It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of Dr. Lonnie Smith, Hammond B-3 jazz organist and composer, and recipient of a 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in jazz. During a career spanning more than 50 years, Smith was featured on more than 70 jazz, blues, and rhythm-and-blues recordings and was considered one of the premier purveyors of funk/soul jazz.
In the NEA’s video tribute to Smith he said, “My hat’s off to the musicians there who play with me because I don’t ever know where I’m going. The music becomes mine now. It’s mine, that’s where I hear it. That’s where I paint that picture.”
Smith was introduced to music through the gospel he heard at the church where his mother sang. He was part of several vocal ensembles in the 1950s, and played trumpet and other instruments at school. In the late 1950s, Art Kubera, a Buffalo, New York-area music store owner, gave Smith his first organ on which he learned to play and develop his musical style. In addition to being influenced by the sound of the church organ, he was inspired by organists such as Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett, and Jimmy Smith.
Smith's first gigs were at Buffalo's Pine Grill Jazz Club, where he garnered the attention of headlining performers including Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson, and George Benson. The latter hired Smith as the organist for his quartet to perform in concert and on several of Benson’s recordings in the mid-1960s. Smith made his first recording as a leader, Finger-Lickin’ Good, for Columbia Records during this time. Shortly thereafter, he joined Donaldson’s band, appearing on several of his Blue Note albums including the hit Alligator Bogaloo in 1967. Blue Note executives recognized the organist's talent and signed him to the label, which led to the recording of several now-classic soul jazz albums, such as Think!, Move Your Hand, Turning Point, and Drives.
Throughout his career, Smith brought jazz into other genres, such as funk and rock, creating album-long tributes to artists such as Jimi Hendrix and Beck and covering everyone from the Beatles to the Eurythmics. All the while, whether leading a trio or a 15-piece band, he maintained his telltale sound on the organ. His funky organ playing has been in demand by hip-hop groups since the 1990s, with bands such as A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, O.G.C., Madvillian, and United Future Organization sampling his beats. In 2012, Smith launched his own record label, Pilgrimage Records, before returning to the Blue Note label for his 2016 release, Evolution.
Among the honors bestowed upon Smith are DownBeat’s Best Organist honors and numerous Organist/Keyboards Player of the Year awards by the Jazz Journalists Association. Both the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame (2009) and Jazz Organ Fellowship (2011) elevated Smith to the ranks of their honorees.
More information on Dr. Lonnie Smith is available at arts.gov, including a video tribute, podcast, short audio features, and video of Matthew Whitaker performing “Mellow Mood” in Smith’s honor at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert.
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