Dr. Lonnie Smith feels blessed.
The 72-year-old Hammond B-3 organ player is one of the big names due to play at this year's Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat, which takes place between August 24 and 27.
Smith, who will head a trio in Eilat, cuts a strikingly colorful figure with his turban, flowing robes and luxurious mustache and beard. But is it music and his unremitting joie de vivre that really get his audiences going.
Smith was born in Buffalo, New York, into a musical family. The organist says that his mother was a major influence on him musically, as she introduced him to gospel, classical and jazz music. In fact, Smith's initial forays into performing music were on the vocal side of the discipline. In addition to singing gospel numbers and learning the art of scatting with his mother, he was a member of several singing ensembles in the 1950s, including a doo-wop band called the Teen Kings. Then teenaged Grover Washington Jr., who was to become a world-famous jazzsoul saxophonist, was a member of the young band, and Washington's brother Daryl was on drums. Smith actually got his first look at an organ at the Washingtons' house – it was a Spinet, which is much smaller than the Hammond B-3. But, curiously, he never laid a hand on it.
It was a gent by the name of Art Kubera, who owned a local music store, who was responsible for setting Smith on his way to his now trademark instrument.
"He was the angel for me," says Smith. "I used to go to his store and sit there until closing time. And one day Art asked me why I came to his store every day and sat there until closing time, and I answered, 'If I had an instrument, I could work; and if I could work. I could make a living.'" Smith didn't have too long to wait to get a substantial push in the requisite direction.
"One day, after Art closed the store, he took me into the back, and there was a brand new Hammond B-3.
That was it. My eyes lit up, and he said: 'It's yours.' I couldn't believe it!" he recounts.
In musical education terms, Smith was no youngster at the time.
"I was about 20, which is kind of late to start," he observes. "When I was at school, I played trumpet and tuba and all that, but it was all by ear." By the time Kubera gave Smith the gift of a lifetime, the organist had already gotten into Hammond B-3 vibes.
"I saw people like Jimmy Smith and Wild Bill Davis. I really loved the sound of the Hammond and what it looked like," he says.
It takes a lot of dedication and practice to master most instruments, and the Hammond B-3 is one of the most demanding instruments around. You have to be dexterous, as well as fleet and nimble of foot because the Hammond has a large number of pedals that help to manipulate the sonic vibes and add texture and color to the musical output. But Smith took to the outsized instrument like the proverbial fish to water.
"Even though I didn't know how, I was able to play right from the beginning," he recalls. "I learned how to work the stops, and that was it. It's a passion for me, so everything else came naturally." Smith's first organ gigs were at his hometown's main jazz venue, the Pine Grill, where he attracted the attention of jazz guitarist George Benson. One night Smith sat in with organist Jack McDuff's band, which included Benson. The Pittsburgh-born guitarist was looking for an organist for his quartet, and the two hit it off immediately and promised to stay in touch. That, eventually, led to Smith’s relocating to the global jazz capital.
A year or so later, Smith and Benson hooked up again and worked on a couple of numbers at Benson's mother's home. They soon moved to New York, where they started attracting attention at gigs at various clubs in Harlem. Once in the Big Apple, and the center of the jazz action, Smith wasted no time in getting his artistic message across to a wider audience. His debut release, Finger Lickin' Good, came out on Columbia Records in 1968. Shortly after that, Smith found his way to the preeminent Blue Note jazz label.
Smith has always been an entertainer. He is the most genial of performers and has a constant smile on his face. He is also one of the most eclectic musicians around, and his hefty recording output – he features on more than 70 albums – incorporates cover versions of songs by The Beatles, The Stylistics and The Eurhythmics, and he has done tribute albums of material by Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane.
One thing is sure: The jazz fans who make their way down to the Port of Eilat next week are in for a vibrant, dynamic, high-energy and high-spirited time with Smith and his trio of guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Lee Pearson.
Red Sea Jazz Festival joint artistic directors Eli Degibri and Dubi Lentz have done a good job with the rest of this year's lineup as well. Chief among the jazz big guns are pianist Fred Hersch and his trio; multi Grammy Award-winning singer Diane Schuur; 36-year-old saxophonist Dayna Stephens; and 86-year-old saxophonist Lee Konitz. And the Eilat audiences will no doubt be intrigued to espy a diminutive figure behind the drum set when saxophonist Antoine Roney takes the stage with his quartet. The drummer is Roney's 10-year-old son Kojo, who has been wowing jazz fans across the globe for more than two years.
The Israeli jazz community – offshore and local – is well represented in Eilat this year. This includes a quintet led by longtime New York resident bassist Omer Avital; and France-based pianist Yonatan Avishai and his trio – Avital and Avishai are also members of the popular Third World Love quartet. The locally based contingent includes veteran guitarist Ofer Ganor and his trio of twin brother bassist Eyal and drummer Shai Zelman, while Omri Mor will perform his singular fusion of jazz and Andalusian music. Pop singer Marina Maximilian should also pack in the crowds when she teams up with a trio of jazz instrumentalists – guitarist Yonatan Albalak, bassist Gilad Abro and drummer Aviv Cohen.
For tickets and more information: www.redseajazzeilat.com, *9066 and www.eventim.co.il