New Orleans, January 2000: the very first of a blessed many times that I would meet the great jazz organist Dr. Lonnie Smith in person. It was a small, intimate space, and I was sitting in the front row mere feet away from the B3, I could smell the wood and Hammond oil and feel the wind on my face from the swoosh of the Leslie horns. Every note of every phrase he played made perfect sense to me, it was as if he was speaking directly to me through his music (disclaimer: this does not make me special or unique, everybody with a heart and a pulse felt this way at his live performances). He was every ounce as approachable and friendly and joyful as his music made it feel like he would be, I had a lovely chat with him after the show. Nearing the end of a 4-year jazz piano undergrad degree, I had already started playing Hammond B3 and wanted to get more serious about it; by the end of that evening, I had made up my mind that I was really going to dig in, and that I would do everything in my power to have this man as my mentor.
Fast forward to around August of 2001: I had somehow gotten a phone number for whom I thought was his agent or assistant, but when I dialed the number, to my surprise, Lonnie himself answered … I nervously explained who I was and that I’d like to study with him – knowing that he lived in Florida (I lived in Montreal at the time), I figured it was more practical to organize myself to go to New York a few times whenever he was there, but he paused for a moment and said “It’s cold up there isn’t it? … How ’bout you come down here for a month …… you messy?” I could hardly believe he was offering to let me stay in his home … “no …” I answered sheepishly … “Ha, you lyin’” he laughed. And with that, I was off to go spend the better part of February 2002 on Dr. Lonnie Smith’s couch in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
The day I arrived, I was greeted at the airport by his closest friend and confidante Holly, one of the loveliest, strongest, most selfless people I’ve ever met (one can tell a lot about somebody by the company they keep). When we got to Lonnie’s home that afternoon, he showed me to the den where I would be staying, then had me sit down at one of the several organ-simulator digital keyboards in the room and asked me to play a tune. I think I had just gotten through the melody of the jazz standard Alone Together, when he gently stopped me and said: “Your right hand is good … Your left hand is very bad.” He didn’t let me play a real organ for almost a week. I was to train my left hand bass lines on the clones in the den, painfully slowly … like ♩ = 20 bpm kind of slow. That’s all I did for several days. So, I’d be practicing my slow bass lines and he’d appear at the door and watch and listen and nod for a bit and just say “… slow …” and leave again …
Mornings would often go like this: I would be sleeping in a bit late, maybe until about 9:00am, and he would come into the den, grab the belt of his housecoat and lightly whip at me with it and say, “Get up! Get off that couch … I cannot stand her … you get on my last nerve” 😂 (for those who knew him, you will remember this phrase of his fondly) … then he would make his way over to the front foyer area where there were four Hammond organs and even more Leslies crammed into a space where you wouldn’t imagine they would all fit, but there they were ready and waiting to be fired up. He preferred one in particular, but often would go to the others depending on his mood. And he would just play whatever he felt like playing in that moment. And of course it was amazing … I would shuffle over in my PJs, half awake, and sit on the stoop leading to the foyer and just take in this glorious personal concert, day in and day out … a blistering up-tempo swinging jazz tune, a soulful gospel-style hymn, a heart-wrenching ballad … and he’d look at me and say “I’m crazy … I can hear this (pointing to the pedals), and this (left hand), and all this (right hand) … all in here (head)” … it took the better part of 10 years as a jazz organist before I truly understood the entirety of what that meant.
In contrast to his intensely high-energy bravado stage performances, at home he loved to just hang around the house in scrubs and watch cop shows on TV. I taught him how to cook rice and beans in the microwave because his kitchen was a renovation zone at the time and the stove wasn’t hooked up … I told him a story about how once I cooked eggs in the microwave and that when I took them out and prodded them with a fork, they exploded all over my face and hair. He laughed so hard, and between bouts of laughter, he said “Let’s do that! We’ll blow up some eggs, and some potatoes, yeah we’ll do that, and then we’ll play it! See, you’ve got to play life”. At some point he said something to the effect of: sure, we need to practice and study, but we also have to live, to have experiences … otherwise we’ll have nothing to say, and nothing to play.
Being there in February, I remember the truckload of Valentine’s Day cards that arrived at his house. I said “Wow, you sure are popular with the ladies!” … after a short pause, he said, “They were a part of my life. See, the thing about it is, I don’t want no stuff, no yellin’, you know what I’m sayin’? I’d tell them: ‘Enjoy me while I’m here, ‘cause tomorrow I might be gone’”.
Enjoy me while I’m here, ‘cause tomorrow I might be gone.
Over nearly 20 years, I had the wonderful privilege of seeing Lonnie perform live in several different cities and spaces, sharing many a post-show dinner or cup of tea, even visiting him once more at his Florida home for a few days on my way to Brazil for the first time. There were times my phone would ring and I would see his number pop up on the call display (this was in the ancient era before smart phones) – of course I would stop whatever I was doing and grab the receiver right away, it was always such a treat to talk to him, no matter what it was about. One time he called because he wanted to remember the name of that hilarious YouTube video that had made all of us laugh so hard … it was Santana Shreds. He loved that video.
Lonnie was a kind and gentle soul, whose joy and warmth and love for music and life were exhilarating and contagious. He instantly connected with the innate value of every person he encountered, and treated absolutely everybody with equal respect and grace – from the janitors and waitresses at IHOP, to random babies at the supermarket, to his students and friends, doctors, engineers, other world-class artists like himself – always with the same joyful laugh often accompanied by playful prods in the foot with his ornate walking stick. Yes, he was a truly phenomenal organist and all-around musician, and of course it was a tremendous honour to study with the very best, in the most traditional and authentic setting … but the most important thing I learned from him goes way above and beyond the practice and techniques of jazz organ; to be in his presence was to witness his profound understanding of what is truly important in life, perhaps even of the meaning of life itself. It is through his qualities and his values, through the way he lived his everyday life, that I learned of the kind of human being I would hope to become.