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Organist Jimmy Smith Dies

Jazz pioneer was seventy-nine

February 9, 2005 12:00 AM ET

Legendary jazz organist Jimmy Smith died Tuesday night from natural causes at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, according to his spokesperson. He was seventy-nine years old.

Smith revolutionized the use of the Hammond B3 in modern jazz and collaborated with other jazz heavyweights like Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, Kenny Burrell and Lou Donaldson.

Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, in 1925, Smith began his musical career playing piano. After performing with his father throughout the Forties, he attended the Hamilton and Ornstein music schools through the early Fifties. He switched from piano to the Hammond in 1951, and made his New York debut at Cafe Bohemia. After an appearance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, where he became the first certifiable jazz organ star, Smith launched his recording career on Blue Note Records. He toured for the next two decades, before recording for Verve and Milestone into the Nineties.

Smith's music was introduced to a new generation of rock fans in 1994, when the Beastie Boys sampled his song "Root Down" on their track of the same name. The Beasties' "Root Down," off of Ill Communication, also featured the shout-out, "Jimmy Smith is my man."

"[Jimmy Smith's] 'Root Down' was ridiculous," wrote the Beasties' Adam Yauch in the liner notes of the group's 1999 Sounds of Science anthology. "I remembered thinking, 'How can a groove be this nice?'"

After a five-year break, Smith released two albums, Fourmost Return and Dot Com Blues, in 2001. In January, he received the prestigious Jazz Masters lifetime achievement award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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