Remembering Jimmy Smith

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(Sacramento, CA)
Thursday, February 10, 2005

Long before they became friends in the early 90’s, Mick Martin, like others of his generation, emulated the legendary Jimmy Smith.

"Because he created the entire musical world that I lived in.  For me Jimmy Smith was almost like a carnival ride.  I mean it had thrills, it had emotion, it had the tendancy of the unexpected and the 'how did he do that?'"

Perhaps one of the greatest tricks Jimmy Smith ever pulled off was to make jazz commercially-viable.

"I don't know how many jazz artists that we could name that had Top 40 hits.  'Walk on the Wild Side' is still remembered by a lot of people of my generation as one of the best songs they ever heard on the radio. Period."

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"Back in the 60's, if you didn't have an organ in your jazz band you were told that you didn't have the gig.  That's how influenial Jimmy Smith was."

To some who met him, Jimmy Smith could appear a bit abrasive… that’s the impression Gary Vercelli got when he sat behind Smith in a bussfull of musicians during a jazz festival in the 1980’s.

"And he turned around and in kind of a gruff voice said 'what do you play?' And I said 'Ah, I don't play anything.  I'm a jazz critic.'  And he goes 'You gonna criticize me?'  And I said 'No, Mr. Smith, I'm more of a journalist actually, not a critic.'  But he had a way of  being confrontational but also humorous at the same time, where you kind of knew he was joking with you.  But he alway kept you off center."

"Jimmy didn't suffer fools gladly and that was part of it."

The other part, says Mick Martin, was keeping fellow musicians on their toes and in the process pushing them to greater heights.

"Jimmy would always change the groove ever so slightly and that would bring out the best in the people who played with him because he never let them off the hook.  He always kept upping the excitement for them and what they were doing."

After living in Los Angeles for several years, Jimmy Smith moved to Sacramento in the late 80’s, while continuing to tour and record. And it wasn’t unusual to catch him sitting in on occasion at a local club.

"Jimmy considered Sacramento to be a good medium ground where he could get the quiet and solitude he needed.  But he also felt there was enough music and enough things happening in Sacramento."

Jimmy and his wife Lola moved to Phoenix after she suffered a series of recent strokes. As it turns out, like so many long marriages, the couple died within one year of each other… Jimmy Smith will always be remembered as a musical pioneer, but Mick Martin reminds us of another important contribution.

"There were years when jazz could have become forgotten where he came along and gave people a jazz that was very much oriented toward entertaining people."

Paul Conley KXJZ News.