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Jimmy Smith, 79; organist expanded jazz's boundaries

LOS ANGELES -- Organist Jimmy Smith, who made jazz swing a new way by almost single-handedly introducing the soulful electric riffs of the Hammond B-3 organ, died Tuesday. He was 79.

Mr. Smith ruled the Hammond B-3 in the 1950s and 1960s and blended jazz, blues, R&B, bebop, and even gospel into an exciting stew that became known as "soul jazz" -- an idiom that produced many imitators and fans.

"Anyone who plays the organ is a direct descendant of Jimmy Smith. It's like Adam and Eve -- you always remind someone of Jimmy Smith," jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco said in an interview last year.

"He was the big pioneer, not only of the organ but musically. He was doing things that (John) Coltrane did in the '60s, but he did them back in '56 and '57," he said.

Paired with jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery in the 1960s, Mr. Smith first made his mark as a soloist on Blue Note Records. He turned the Hammond B-3 organ, as one critic noted, "into a down and dirty orchestra."

Among his best known albums on Blue Note were "The Sermon!" "Back at the Chicken Shack," "Midnight Special," "Home Cookin'," and "Prayer Meetin'."

Critic Gene Seymour, writing in the "Oxford Companion to Jazz," said, "Though he was not the first player to bring the electric organ to jazz, Smith gave the instrument the expressive power that Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Parker gave their respective saxophones."

The pipe organ had been used in jazz in the 1930s by such famous players as Fats Waller, but it was too big and too heavy to be lugged into jazz clubs. Mr. Smith was able to take his electric B-3 on the road and created a jazz trio of organ, drums, and either guitar or saxophone.

Mr. Smith provided the bass lines by using the foot pedals.

A native of Norristown, Pa., Mr. Smith learned piano at home and studied bass at music schools in Philadelphia.

His turning point came in 1951.

"I heard Wild Bill Davis playing organ at the Club Harlem in Atlantic City and said, 'To hell with the piano. I'm going to play this sucker,' " he told The Boston Globe in 1996.

There was one hurdle, Mr. Smith confided. "I saw the foot pedals and said, 'What are those?' Wild Bill said, 'Those are the pedals, and it will take you 50 years to learn how to use them.' So I got an artist friend of mine to make a chart, 3 feet by 3 feet, of the pedals. I hung it on the wall so that I wouldn't have to look down at my feet."

"I got my first organ from a loan shark," Mr. Smith said, "and he'd show up every Saturday night at my gigs to collect his payments. He always carried a gun, and one night he got so excited that he got up on a table, yelled 'Go, Jimmy' and started waving his gun around. The whole club cleared out. I told him that he'd better start sitting quietly in a corner if he expected me to keep working."

Mr. Smith did keep working and soon was playing in some of New York's most famous clubs, including Cafe Bohemia and Birdland.

Mr. Smith's Blue Note sessions -- from his 1956 "New Sounds on the Organ" to 1963, when he left the label -- included work with some of the major players of the day, including Kenny Burrell, Lee Morgan, Lou Donaldson, Tina Brooks, Jackie McLean, Ike Quebec, and Stanley Turrentine.

On Verve from 1963 to 1972, he played with Montgomery and in big bands conducted or arranged by Oliver Nelson.

Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff once recalled the night he and his partner, Alfred Lion, first encountered Mr. Smith:

"I first heard Jimmy at Small's Paradise in January of 1956. It was his first gig in New York. He was a stunning sight. A man in convulsions, face contorted, crouched over in apparent agony, his fingers flying, his foot dancing over the pedals. The air was filled with waves of sound I had never heard before. The noise was shattering. A few people sat around, puzzled, but impressed.

"He came off the stand, smiling, the sweat dripping all over him. 'So what do you think?' 'Yeah!' I said. That's all I could say."

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