Dr. Lonnie Smith, virtuosic jazz organist, dies at 79

Dr. Lonnie Smith, the NEA Jazz Master who was highly acclaimed for his soulful, dynamic sound on the Hammond B3 organ, has died. He was 79.

Smith first became known as a member of the George Benson quartet in the 1960s and recorded early albums for Blue Note Records with saxophonist Lou Donaldson before finding success as a solo artist.

Known for his funky, inventive wizardry on his instrument of choice, Smith earned fans around the world for his unique, virtuosic style and spirited performances.

Smith’s death on Sept. 28 was confirmed by Blue Note Records. A spokesperson for the label said the cause of death was pulmonary fibrosis.

Born on July 3, 1942, in Lackawanna, N.Y., Smith was raised in a musical family who introduced him to jazz, gospel and classical music After trying his hand at a few different instruments, he was gifted a Hammond organ in the ‘60s and dedicated himself to it for the rest of his career.

In all, Smith released 29 albums as a leader and dozens more as a sideman for the likes of George Benson, Lou Donaldson, Javon Jackson, Red Holloway, Jimmy McGriff and more.

Earlier this year, Smith released what has turned out to be his final album. Breathe was produced by Blue Note president Don Was, and most of it was recorded during Smith’s 75th birthday celebration at New York’s Jazz Standard in 2017.

The Jazz Journalists Association named Smith the top organ keyboardist of the year nine times. Two of his records — 1968’s Think and 1970’s Drives — earned spots on Billboard’s R&B albums chart. Smith was named an NEA Jazz Master in 2017.

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