Rain, rain go away — we want Dr. Lonnie to stay and play. So does he.
“It’s not raining, is it?” That was the first thing out of his mouth after saying hello for a recent Hoopla interview.
Smith, the wizard of the Hammond B-3 organ, was rained out of the Iowa City Jazz Festival in 2010, but he’s back on the schedule this year, ready to rock the main stage in front of the University of Iowa Pentacrest at 8 p.m. Saturday (7/6). So far, the weather report looks clear.
Friday night’s fireworks, shot from nearby Hubbard Park, will be the warm-up to the fireworks that blaze from Smith’s agile fingers.
Now 71, he’s been playing the massive instrument for 50 years. It was love at first sound when he heard one played in a music store in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y.
“It was so beautiful — I can’t explain it to you,” Smith says by phone from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he now lives. “I fell in love, and that was it. It was the perfect match for me.
“The organ has all the elements in the universe — the storm, the wind, the air, the water … the thunder, the sunshine. You can’t beat that sound. That’s what I feel from the organ. That’s what I get from it. What someone else gets from it, I don’t know,” he says.
“When I play it, it’s like a flame — that old black magic goes from a foot all the way up, from the top of my head to my feet. It’s like electricity — it goes through my whole body. It’s a powerful love that you cannot get from any other, but you can get from it. I have such love for this instrument.”
- Iowa City Jazz Festival
- Friday (7/5) to Sunday (7/7)
- Downtown Iowa City
- Cost: Free admission
- Mainstage headliners: Friday: Sachal Vasandani and the Iowa Jazz Orchestra, 8 p.m.; Saturday: Dr. Lonnie Smith, 8 p.m.; Sunday: Pharoah Sanders, 8 p.m.
- Extra: Food, kids games, ice skating rink, local and regional musicians, fireworks Friday
- More information: Summerofthearts.org
His brand of jazz is infused with the music of his youth — the gospel, blues and jazz sounds introduced by his mother. As a teen, he played trumpet and sang with several groups, forming one he called the Supremes, years before Diana Ross and company stopped in the name of love.
He hooked up with George Benson in the early 1960s and relocated to New York. A few years later, he went solo, carving out an award-winning career spanning more than 30 albums.
He’s hard to categorize. He’s kept eclectic, covering everything from the Beatles and Eurythmics to Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Beck, as well as writing his own music.
“When I play music, I hear something entirely different than the music itself, because the music comes from everywhere — all over,” he says. “I hear music in everything that’s out there — the wind, I hear music. The sound, I just let it flow from me inside, let it go and it tells me what to do. And that’s the beauty of it. I had no idea when first stated recording that I would come to bring in another style. I had no intentions and no idea that I had one.”
He wanted to forge his own path, not one laid out for him by record producers. Finally, after all these years, he’s stepped away from labels and formed his own Pilgrimage Records, using musicians he wants, making music his way.
Iowa City audiences will hear Smith and his band playing the world music and gospel infusions of his latest CD, “The Healer,” as well as other music from his vast collection, laced with plenty of improv in the live setting.
He doesn’t tour as much as he used to, but has a fairly aggressive summer schedule. He tries to build in breaks, and even though he’d like to cut back and make his life less hectic, he stays on the road for one reason: “The people.”
“My fans — they keep me going,” he says.
When he once talked about retiring and taking it easy, he says they told him that was selfish.
“I didn’t understand,” he says, until they said it would be selfish to just leave them cold.
“I thought about,” he says, and decided to keep going.
“They give me the energy to play,” he says, and to keep up with the tiring travel. “Once I get where I’m going, the people make me feel good. I’m happy to make them happy.”
And of course, he still reaps the physical and spiritual rewards of making music.
“It’s like food for the soul, for the brain and everything else,” he says. That’s why the title of his latest album is “The Healer.”
“It heals people,” he says, describing an “unbelievable” experience with a friend who was in a diabetic coma, but began moving his fingers when Smith took a radio to his hospital room and turned on the tunes. “It’s a healer.”
He also feeds on the universal dialogue of music on his global travels. Language barriers dissolve when music is shared.
“That’s what keeps me going,” he says. “When that happens — I don’t want to lose that,” he says.
“It’s worth it — all of that travel, it’s worth it. That’s when I’m paid — when people come up to you and love your music, and you never thought they would know who you are. It’s amazing. You can’t beat that. It gives you strength and energy and makes you want to go again.”