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The scene was positively trippy. In a dimly lit chamber of centuries-old stone, cannons hanging decoratively from walls they once defended, Dr. Lonnie Smith pulled otherworldly sounds from his Hammond B-3 organ. Helming a trio with guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Allison Miller, the Doc held court at 12:30 each night in the subterranean fortifications of Perugia, putting an exclamation point on the day’s performances at the 2006 Umbria Jazz Festival. The wizardly organist shook the 16th-century Rocca Paolina to its foundations, chasing ghosts from the masonry with stone-cold funk and tremulous runs on an instrument to which he would dedicate himself for 60 years. That pursuit came to an end on September 28, when Smith passed away, at the age of 79, at his home in Fort Lauderdale.
With his signature turbans, magnificent robes and walking stick, Dr. Lonnie cut an elegant figure. A cottony white beard flowed from his chin, and large dark eyes blazed brightly, full of mirth and mischief but also kindness and warmth. “It’s all your fault,” was his usual greeting to me, accompanied by a dazzling smile. Apparently, he said this to many people; organist Mike LeDonne even borrowed the catchphrase for the title of a recent release. If you were a musician or someone who had booked him, you might get, “Where’s my money?” offered with the same gruff jocularity. (“I told you she couldn’t sing,” he joked with the audience following a powerhouse performance by vocalist Alicia Olatuja on a live track from his 2021 release Breathe. “I just feel sorry for her.”)
For many years, Smith was content to exist in semi-obscurity, gigging regularly at the downtown Fort Lauderdale jazz club O’Hara’s. Playing an electric keyboard rather than a Hammond organ, he became a local favorite, beloved for his top-shelf musicianship and outsize persona. Except for aficionados, most audiences didn’t realize that he was jazz royalty, a unique voice on the B-3 who had released records on the Blue Note label that are prized by collectors and sampled by hip-hop and acid-jazz artists. “I was hiding out,” he told me. But not from old pals such as George Benson, James Moody and Betty Carter who came by to jam with him when they were in town.
Lonnie’s profile as one of the world’s baddest Hammond players began to rise again when he released a couple of recordings that made some noise beyond Broward County, creative re-imaginings of the music of Jimi Hendrix and Beck, in the mid-’90s and early 2000s, respectively. A string of excellent albums followed on the Palmetto label, followed by a one-off on his own Pilgrimage imprint, before Blue Note came calling after a 45-year hiatus. Label president Don Was, a Dr. Lonnie die-hard from way back, was awed anew by the Doc’s performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2013 and determined to bring him back to Blue Note. The partnership proved fortuitous, if short-lived, as Lonnie released three terrific albums that renewed and re-examined his tenure with the venerable jazz label.
Blue Note released what was to be Lonnie’s last album, Breathe, in March. The record finds the Doc as joyful and creative as ever on tracks he recorded live at the Jazz Standard in New York City during his 75th birthday celebration in 2017. With his regular trio mates, guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake, and a superb horn section, Smith again revealed himself a singular stylist whose favorite place to make music was in front of an audience. And, befitting his ignore-the-moldy figs ethos, he invited punk godfather (and fellow South Florida resident) Iggy Pop to join him in the studio for a couple of cuts that bookend the album, darkly groovy covers of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together” and Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” As swan songs go, Breathe seems particularly fitting, capturing the Doc, as he might put it, “swinging his can off” and seemingly enjoying every minute.