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A quarter of a century ago, Dr. Lonnie Smith was enjoying the attention of music notables such as John Hammond, Sr., (who signed him to a contract with Columbia and arranged his first appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival). Downbeat magazine was declaring him Organist of the Year. He was playing gigs with everyone from Count Basie to Thelonious Monk.
Those glory days may be gone, but Smith isn't. And if the mad Monk were alive today, he'd probably be nodding his goateed head approvingly upon hearing the riffs Smith is hitting at age 50. Having switched from organ to piano, Lonnie Smith is working out new phrasings for old songs, and experimenting wildly, as if he were back in his early twenties in the midst of the throbbing Manhattan jazz scene, playing venues such as Small's Paradise.
Smith, who has been capping his head with a turban, a style choice, not a religious one, since he was fifteen, is not a doctor of medicine and does not possess a Ph.D in physics. The lofty moniker A often applied to master key men (note Dr. John and Professor Longhair) A was given him by fellow jazz musicians.
After recently taking over as bandleader at O'Hara's Pub in Fort Lauderdale, the Doctor began examining his keyboard prowess on piano, even moving one into his Boynton Beach house. "I love the piano," Smith says. "For one reason, it's very percussive. And then, it's not nearly as limiting as the organ. With the organ, you've got to play the bass. With the piano, you can really work with the upright-bass player in a group. I can just relax, rest, and breathe A I can let him speak."
Taking this rededication to his roots a step further, Smith will continue the return to tradition and pay homage to one of the true masters of America's indigenous music when he journeys to Manhattan this summer to record a tribute to John Coltrane for a Japanese label. Smith will be joined on the project by guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith.
Lonnie Smith has dozens of albums to his credit and has made a number of worldwide appearances, including one with trumpeter Donald Byrd and saxophonist Phil Woods at a jazz festival in Hong Kong last year.
With jazz enjoying some resurgence in the U.S., thanks to the Marsalis family and others, Smith feels it's the perfect time to return to his starting point without abandoning the present. "I came up at the right time," the keyboardist says. "I came out of Buffalo and met up with George Benson, who I played with a lot back then, and we just had great luck, getting recording contracts and everything. And if I wasn't able to play with them, I saw them A Monk, Mingus, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans. But until just recently, you've had a lot of people playing what they call jazz but isn't really jazz at all. You've had saxophonists who sound as if they've got a comb up against their lips and they're mumbling into it. But now you can really see the difference. To put it simply, musicians who are not just being good technicians, but playing more from the heart."