Master of the Hammond organ and solo virtuoso Jimmy Smith is the focus of our attention today. Recipient of the NEA Jazz Masters Award, there’s no doubt that he deserves a spot on the Rockschool Keys syllabus!

Hammond Hero!

It was clear quite early on in Jimmy Smith’s life that he might have a talent for the keys. By the age of 9, Jimmy won a Philadelphia radio talent competition as a boogie-woogie pianist, which we’d say is fairly impressive!

But lots of us will know Jimmy for his incredible skills on the Hammond organ. He’d bought his first Hammond in 1951 and after a year of intense study, he emerged from the practise room, ready to take on the world with the Hammond organ by his side.

After playing a gig in a Philadelphia club, Alfred Lion from Blue Note (a world-renowned American jazz record label owned by Universal Music Group) immediately signed him, and there began Jimmy Smith’s journey to becoming a star of the jazz scene. In fact, he was so creative and skilled that he was quickly dubbed The Incredible Jimmy Smith.

40 recording sessions over 8 years was a big success for Jimmy at Blue Note, but come 1962 it was time for a new challenge, so he signed with Verve. Jimmy got to experience working with a big band for the first time, and created many more fantastic albums and collaborations, including one with the legendary George Benson.

Mustard Green's

Although the electric organ had been used by some other jazz heroes like Fats Waller and Count Basie, it really was the mind-melting solo work of Jimmy Smith that solidified the Hammond organ’s place in jazz and blues. Let it be known that this man’s ability to improvise is BEYOND! When creating the Rockschool Keys syllabus, we knew it couldn’t be complete without him, and so “Mustard Green’s” found its way into the Grade 7 books.

When tackling this (let’s be honest) difficult piece, we’d really recommend studying the original recording. There’s nothing that can set you up better than studying Jimmy’s phrasing and ideas – he has so many of them! We’d also suggest really having a look at the difference between the different degrees of swing, as this understanding will lead to a far more authentic and engaging performance. Plus, Jimmy is in good company in the Grade 7 syllabus with John Williams and Van Halen!

In the 80s and 90s, Jimmy experienced a bit of a career revival, with opportunities to record with big names in the music industry like Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, B.B. King and Etta James. What a line up! In 2005, Jimmy Smith was awarded the NEA Jazz Masters Award, the highest honour that America can give to a jazz musician, and boy, does he deserve it.

Jimmy joins other keys cover stars who have also featured on Artists in Focus too, including Emeli Sandé, Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Stevie Wonder and Snarky Puppy.