When Dr. Lonnie Smith describes the Hammond B3 organ, the instrument he has played in his more than 50 years as a musician, his words are about sound and something else.
“It has all the elements in the universe to me. It says everything that I want to say,” Smith said during a phone interview. “It speaks for me ... the rain, the sunshine, it has all the storms ... And it surrounds you. It feels like electricity coming through my body.”
Smith, known for his work as an ensemble player as well as a group leader, will perform Friday, April 28, at the Carolina Theatre during the annual Art of Cool Festival, which opens Thursday.
Born in Buffalo, New York, Smith heard the blues, gospel and jazz around his home. In his online autobiography on his website, he attributes his early exposure and love of music to his mother, who was a singer. He began playing organ at venues in his hometown when guitarist George Benson, among other musicians, heard him and asked Smith to join his quartet. To be with the quartet, Smith moved to New York, where a Columbia Records executive heard him and signed him for his first record as a leader, “Finger Lickin’ Good” in 1966. Saxophonist Lou Donaldson then hired him, and Smith played on several of Donaldson’s records for the Blue Note label.
Smith went on to record many albums under his name for Blue Note, among them “Think!,” “Turning Point,” and “Move Your Hand.” He has recorded with other labels, but in 2016 returned to Blue Note with “Evolution,” a collection of original compositions and standards that includes the highly inventive piece “African Suite.”
Earlier this month, Smith was one of four musicians who was honored with the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Master Award. It was a great honor to have the recognition “among all my fellow peers, and all my fellow musicians. It’s a great feeling. All your music is worth something through all those years,” he said.
Even in groups that he leads, Smith is the ultimate ensemble player, as well as soloist. He attributes that ability to his experiences with Benson and Donaldson. “You learn what to do and not to do,” Smith said. “Because when you first start, you want to play everything you know, but it’s not necessary,” he said. Too often musicians take the view, “Hear me. Listen to me.” But “music plays itself. You don’t have to force it,” he said. “You play life. You don’t just play notes. Anybody can play notes,” Smith said.
When he was young he used to look at music catalogues and was fascinated by the various instruments. “When I was young, I didn’t know I was going to play, but it stuck with me,” he said. In junior high, he tried several instruments, including trumpet. He wanted to play saxophone because his mother liked the instrument, but the band director had no more saxophones for band students. The director gave him a cornet, and asked him to go to class and play. Impressed with Smith’s ability to play by ear, the director said, “looks like we’ve got a star here,” Smith said.
“Everyone has guardian angels who guide us, but a lot of us don’t pay attention to them,” Smith said. He often has called music store owner Art Kubera his guardian angel. “I used to go hang in the music store and just sit until closing time,” he said. One day Kubera took him through a door in his house and showed him an organ. Smith compared the experience to an illustration in a Bible in which a door opens and light comes in. He began playing the organ from that date, sometime in his early 20s.
In June, he will start recording a live album at New York’s Jazz Standard. “I can’t wait,” Smith said. In a recording studio, “I hear one sound, and sometimes you come out of the studio and it didn’t come out the way you wanted it. I’m the type who’s very seldom satisfied with the recording. I love the song, but you can always do better,” he said. “You don’t want to go in [the studio] and play a song over and over and over. ... You’ve got to be happy with what you did” because there is no perfect session. “I’d rather than feeling that to have perfect.”
GO & DO
WHAT: Dr. Lonnie Smith in concert with the Revive Big Band
WHEN: Friday, April 28, 9 p.m.
WHERE: The Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St.
ADMISSION: For tickets, visit aocfestival.org/tickets/