All Lonnie Smith wants for his birthday is complete control. After five decades as a recording artist, it's not too much for the soon-to-be 70-year-old organist to ask. If you tour his discography—particularly the four classic albums he cut for Blue Note in the 1960s—it's hard to imagine he was ever stifled much creatively: Across the 30-plus records bearing his name, Smith's music has ranged from gritty funk workouts to Afro-Latin grooves to psychedelic head-trips. His live shows are among the funkiest experiences known to man. But as he discusses his life and still-ongoing career—winding through tales of performing with fellow jazz legends Lou Donaldson and George Benson, of witnessing firsthand the transformations of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, of jamming with James Brown—Smith casually mentions moments of bending to the will of producers, getting his parts cut in post-production, and being ripped off by greedy execs.
That's why, as he approaches a milestone birthday, Smith is giving himself a gift: His own label. Later this year, Smith will launch Pilgrimage Productions. Its first release is a live-in-the-studio session Smith recorded last month with a septet of hot, young musicians in a refurbished warehouse in Queens. Clips from the session—available on the Kickstarter page funding the project—show Smith, with his white, wispy beard and ever-present turban (he's a converted Sikh), delivering a fiery, near-spiritual performance. At this point, the man doesn't play an instrument—in his words, he simply "plays life."
"The organ ain't nothing," he says in a convivial rasp, over the phone from New York. "It don't breathe until I breathe."
WW: What initially drew you to the organ?
Lonnie Smith: I first discovered the organ in the church. I loved the sound. It had a full sound. It was warm. It had everything that I loved. It vibrated. I was drawn to it right away.
You don't read music, and you've had no formal training. Where did your musical ability come from?
I think it had a lot with being around that kind of vibe. My mother was a vocalist. She used to sing gospel with her sister, and her mother used to sing. My cousins would come over, and I would sing with them. I was young, and I used to jump in with the harmony. As far as the instruments are concerned, that's a gift from God. I remember when I was in second or third grade. I went to visit my aunt, and she had a piano. I had never seen a piano, not really. And I got up on the piano, and I remember the first song I picked out [to play] was a song called "Crying in the Chapel." My parents came out and they didn't believe it. It was strange. I didn't believe it, but I picked it out and played it like it was nothing. It was a gift.
You've always played the Hammond B3, which is a massive instrument. That must be difficult to haul around.
Sure, sure. But you got to admit, when you see me, you see how buff I am. [Laughs] I'm pretty big. When we'd play, you'd be trying to move it and the guy would say, "I have to go to the bathroom," or, "I have to go to a car," and you'd sit there and wait for them and they'd [have] gone. So I'd have to move it myself. It's really that tough.
You speak often about "playing life." Explain that concept.
When you play life, it's like everyday living. When you wake up, you got a feeling that day. Sometimes people feel bad. You had a bad day. Somebody hurt you. Play that, instead of fighting against it. When you fight against it, you fight against the grain. If you're hurt, play hurt; sorrow, play it. If you're happy, play it. But if you fight it, it's like a circle and a square. Don't force it. A lot of musicians get frustrated, because they hear someone else play, and they say, "Ah, I wish I could play like that." I always tell them, you're only great within. Play within yourself. In other words, play to your potential, and you're just as great as that other person.
SEE IT: Lonnie Smith plays Mississippi Studios on Monday, April 23. 8:30 pm. $20. 21+.