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R.I.P. Dr. Lonnie Smith (aka The Turbanator)

We mourn the passing of the great Hammond B-3 organist and NEA Jazz Master Dr. Lonnie Smith, who died at his home in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, Sept. 28 at the age of 79. With an eternal smile behind the hulking B-3 and a depth of soul that boundless, Smith forged a unique space in jazz with his voluminous output that included classic albums for the Blue Note label like 1969's Think, 1970's Move Your Hand and 1971's Live at the Club Mozambique. He later recorded successful albums for the Groove Merchant, MusicMasters and Palmetto label before returning to Blue Note in 2016 with Evolution, followed by All In My Mind in 2018 and Breathe in 2021, the latter featuring guest vocals by Iggy Pop on a version of Donovan's 1966 hit "Sunshine Superman" and on the 1972 peace and love anthem, "Why Can't We Live Together."

I had the pleasure of presenting Dr. Lonnie with a Jazz Journalists Association Award for Best Keyboardist at the 2018 Paul Brown Monday Night Jazz Series in Hartford. And I interviewed him a few times over the years for various magazines. Here's an excerpt from an interview I did with him for the January 2005 issue of Jazz Times that I think captures some of the true Dr. Lonnie character:

Sitting behind a hulking Hammond B3 organ, Dr. Lonnie Smith is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a turban. Few people know whether the man some guidebooks say is 62 earned a doctorate in medicine or music. The answer? Neither. One story has it that he earned his “Dr.” moniker from his fellow musicians as a tribute to his ability to “doctor up” their music, although he might have just appropriated the nickname in the mid-1970s to distinguish himself from keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith.

And what about that turban? Smith claims it’s an authentic Sikh wrap, though the Buffalo, N.Y., native seems more Baptist than Sikh.

Just who is this genial genie with the long, wispy white beard and ever-present toothy grin who has the power to transport listeners with his swinging, grooving funk machine?

The day after his CD release party at the Jazz Standard in New York for his Palmetto debut, Too Damn Hot!, an interview in the Doctor’s hotel room revealed more about the man beneath the turban.

Despite his numerous mysteries, a few facts remain crystal clear: Dr. Lonnie Smith is a phenomenal B3 burner who can light up a room with visceral intensity or lay down some of the nastiest funk ever played on an organ. He brings an unusually wide tonal palette to bear on ballads and can hit a relaxed midtempo swing like no one else—or slap it with some bacon fat if he so desires. On stage, he shapes songs on the spot the way a sculptor shapes a slab of clay into an elegant pot. With Smith controlling the 425-pound beast (his pet name for the B3), it’s an eternal search for new chordal voicings, fresh grooves and different approaches to old tunes.

“Playing with the Doctor is an improvisational experience in its truest sense, so you have to be ready at all times,” says guitarist and longtime Smith sideman Peter Bernstein. “The spontaneity is unbelievable. He’s such an intuitive player. There’s never an agenda with Lonnie. He’s always looking to see what he can find on the bandstand. You have to be so in the moment, because with him things will go from solid to liquid and back to solid again. It’s always evolving, so it’s just thrilling to play with him—and terrifying at the same time.”

Because he is strictly self-taught and doesn’t read music, Dr. Lonnie is perhaps more naturally inclined to being in the moment than most schooled musicians. Watching him play, you really get a sense of him searching for and finding the music on the spot as he’s playing it, often even surprising himself with his discoveries. “It’s like I’m hearing it for the first time, like how the audience hears it,” he says. “Music is not something that you practice and you get up on the bandstand and run through on automatic pilot. That’s not for me. I enjoy playing too much to memorize stuff. So it’s never gonna be the same when I play. I can’t do it if I wanted to.

“A lot of people who come and hear me, they don’t realize where the music comes from,” Smith continues. “It doesn’t come from notes on the paper or anything like that. What happens is, the music comes from my toe and travels all the way up like electricity. And that’s why I’m surprised when I’m playing. That’s because by playing by ear, I really let my body play what’s in my heart, right there on the bandstand. I play life instead of notes. I play what I lived. You should always play how you feel. If you’re hurt, play that. If you’re sad, play that. That’s what I tell my students.”

What audiences see when Dr. Lonnie performs are his wide, dancing eyes, Cheshire grin and ever-present turban peeking above the wooden console. And as he plays, he registers every nuance of approval and delight with a facial gesture. His eyebrows raise when he finds a particular chord voicing that pleases. When he nonchalantly peals off fluid, Bird-like flourishes in his right hand, he grimaces then grins ear-to-ear. And when he offers up percussive-sounding comping from some well-chosen drawbar settings, he seems entirely amused by his choice, almost doing a double take.

“He’s just pure joy when he plays,” Bernstein says. “And by him being a performing, improvising person, it’s really a visual thing as much as it is the sound of what he’s creating because everything he plays is completely in his body, in his face. Everything is a musical gesture. It’s all feeling, so there’s nothing fake about what he’s doing on stage.”

That night at the Jazz Standard, Smith was draped in a floor-length black robe and sported a bright orange turban tightly wrapped and piled high on his head. By now, his turban has become his calling card; one of the most iconic images in jazz since Dizzy Gillespie’s upturned horn. “I used to wear turbans when I was young, way before I first recorded,” he confides. “I started wearing turbans early; I don’t know why. And I didn’t know that this was gonna be it for me when I started wearing them, but I’ve never given it up. I have taken it off and played without it. But at this point the turban has become so much of me that the people expect it; it’s what they recognize. Sometimes I do think, ‘Well, what if I just don’t wear it anymore?’ But that’s me. Taking it off at this point is like pulling the mask off the Lone Ranger. Some people just love that mystery. I mean, why does Michael Jackson wear one glove?”

Too Damn Hot! shows the Turbanator at the top of his game, and he continues to tour with his own trio, perform regularly with his longstanding colleague Lou Donaldson and with guitarist Mark Whitfield while also making special guest appearances with the Canadian horn band Crush and with the Organ Summit featuring fellow B3 mavens Jimmy McGriff and Reuben Wilson. “I’m just doing what I love and that’s it,” he says. “You have no idea that you’re making a statement when you’re on the bandstand, you just play. But it does feel good to know that your stuff is still potent after all those years.”

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