Lonnie Liston Smith Biography
Emulated Saxophonists, Made Solo Debut, Venerated by Hip-Hop Artists, Selected discography
The "fusion" jazz of the 1970s, which merged jazz with more commercially oriented influences from rock, rhythm-and-blues, and funk, fell out of fashion as its leading practitioners either moved into popular music or went on to newer jazz experiments. But keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith has been fusion's survivor. Resurrecting his career several times after he seemed to have been written off by the jazz world, Smith seemed to have an uncanny ability to connect with younger musicians and yet maintain the core of his blissful, rather meditative style. He remained active long enough to find himself hailed as an elder statesman by acid jazz musicians of the 1990s and early 2000s.
The spiritual feel of Smith's music was shaped early in his life. Lonnie Liston Smith (not to be confused with organist Dr. Lonnie Smith) was born in Richmond, Virginia on December 28, 1940. His father worked in a tobacco factory at the time, but soon joined a gospel quartet called the Harmonizing Four. Virginia was a hotbed of gospel singing, and the elder Lonnie Liston Smith was able to turn music into a full-time job by 1946. Such stars of the gospel genre as the Swan Silvertones and Sam Cooke often stopped by the Smith household. The three male Smith children all became musicians; flutist and vocalist Donald Smith often performed with his Lonnie Liston Smith, and the Rev. Ray Smith served as music minister at the Richmond Christian Center church.
Smith learned to play the piano at home but began taking lessons after it became clear that he had some talent. As a high school student he became interested in modern jazz, but it was saxophonists Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, as well as the cool, unorthodox trumpeter Miles Davis that caught his ear. He intentionally tried to follow their styles and not to emulate the work of jazz pianists like McCoy Tyner and Horace Silver. While still in his teens, Smith was appearing with jazz groups in the Baltimore area and backing such vocal stars as Betty Carter when they came through town.
After earning a degree in music education from Baltimore's Morgan State University in 1961, Smith got a tip from a college bandmate that there was an open keyboard spot in the highly experimental Jazz Messengers band led by drummer Art Blakey. Smith moved to New York City in 1962 to take the job, making his recording debut with Blakey. He also filled a keyboard slot in the band of another very progressive percussionist, Max Roach. In 1965 he joined the band of saxophonist Roland Kirk (later Rahsaan Roland Kirk), appearing on six tracks of Kirk's Rip, Rip and Panic album that year.
In 1968 Smith joined the band of saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, one of the top touring modern jazz ensembles of the time. It was with Sanders that Kirk started experimenting with the electric keyboards he would often use later in his career, creating a wash of sound as an underpinning for Sanders' frenzied soloing. In the early 1970s Smith began performing and recording intermittently with trumpeter Miles Davis, the key creator of fusion jazz and one of the all-time giants of the genre. Davis tabbed Smith to play on his 1974 Big Fun album, keeping Smith on his toes by demanding that he learn to play the organ. "It was intimidating," Smith recalled in an essay reproduced on his Web site, Lonnie Liston Smith Online. "Then Miles gave me two nights to learn how to make music on the thing. Miles liked to introduce new sounds in a surprising way—that's how he produced such innovative, fresh music."
Made Solo Debut
After a stint with Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri, during which he added a persisting Latin accent to his music, Smith was signed to a contract by producer Bob Thiele on his Flying Dutchman label. Smith put together a band of his own, the Cosmic Echoes, and recorded his first album, Astral Traveling. Mostly but not exclusively instrumental, the music Smith and the Cosmic Echoes made was fusion jazz that combined a spacious, spiritual feel with a layer of funk and rhythm-and-blues (R&B). As Smith gained popularity with the Expansions LP (1975), Flying Dutchman was picked up for distribution by the larger RCA label.
Smith moved to the Columbia label with his 1978 album Loveland and kept up a rapid pace of recording through the rest of the 1970s. When he added vocals to the mix, as with 1979's "Space Princess," Smith created a sound close to the commercial R&B of the day and gained a good deal of radio airplay. His fortunes were boosted by the emergence around 1980 of the "quiet storm" radio format, which blended jazz with sophisticated black pop styles; such Smith numbers as "Never Too Late" became staples of the format. His instrumental numbers often established a basic beat and then surrounded it with subtle shifts of a shimmering texture. Lyrics, when there were any, often referred to spiritual concerns and the expansion of consciousness.
Despite energetic touring, Smith's reputation faded a bit by the mid-1980s. "Smith has tended to regurgitate his better ideas in increasingly vapid cycles," complained the Washington Post in 1983. He found himself without a recording contract for a time. "I had a lot of idealistic concepts about music, and about the spiritual message I was trying to get across," Smith told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "But most record companies only care about demographics and bottom line sales." Still, he retained strong audience loyalty in Europe and Japan, appearing at festivals in both countries.
Venerated by Hip-Hop Artists
Smith made several recordings for the Doctor Jazz label and for the small, Maryland-based Startrak Records. In the late 1980s the hip-hop movement, with its strong basis in funk, began to propel his career upward once again. His debut album for Startrak, Love Goddess, featured guest appearances by vocalist Phyllis Hyman and saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, but soon Smith was working with rapper Guru, who was one of the first to attempt to mix the jazz and hip-hop genres. Smith found himself an elder statesman. "Guru and the other rappers would tell me how their uncles used to make them listen to me and Miles and Donald Byrd and how they got the message," Smith told Australia's Daily Telegraph Mirror newspaper.
Smith appeared on the Guru Jazzmatazz Volume One album but then took another hiatus from recording. He reemerged in 1998 with his Transformation CD, which returned to a sound reminiscent of the Cosmic Echoes years. (The Cosmic Echoes, after a series of personnel changes, disbanded in the mid-1980s.) Once again Smith showed his ability to connect with contemporary listeners; quiet storm radio had been reborn as "smooth jazz," and Smith, approaching the age of 60, was once again a frequent radio presence.
Smith established his own label, Loveland, which was distributed by the large Sony conglomerate. Several of his early albums were reissued, and his music of the late 1970s and early 1980s was collected on a two-CD set called Explorations: The Columbia Years. Touring the United Kingdom in 2003 and 2004, fusion's cosmic-minded survivor showed no signs of calling it quits. He continued to live and make music according to a philosophy he had expressed nearly 30 years before to the Tri-State Defender: "Music is one of the ruling forces in the Cosmos and I constantly stretch for the ultimate. Music should bring a message and I am but a messenger."
Astral Traveling, Flying Dutchman, 1973.
Cosmic Funk, Flying Dutchman, 1974.
Expansions, Flying Dutchman, 1975.
Visions of a New World, Flying Dutchman, 1975.
Reflections of a Golden Dream, RCA, 1976.
Live!, RCA, 1977.
Renaissance, RCA, 1977.
Loveland, Columbia, 1978.
A Song for the Children, Columbia, 1979.
Dreams of Tomorrow, Doctor Jazz, 1979.
Love Is the Answer, Columbia, 1980.
Love Goddess, Startrak, 1983.
Silhouettes, Doctor Jazz, 1984.
Rejuvenation, Doctor Jazz, 1985.
Make Someone Happy, Doctor Jazz, 1989.
Ankhspansion, Novus, 1991.
Magic Lady, Startrak, 1991.
Transformation, Loveland, 1998.
Exotic Mysteries/Loveland, Sony International, 1998.
Explorations: The Columbia Years, Legacy, 2002.
Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford, 1999.
Daily Telegraph Mirror (Sydney, Australia), July 21, 1995.
Philadelphia Tribune, December 6, 1996, p. E5.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, August 2, 1995, p. B1.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 22, 1990, p. G8.
Tri-State Defender (Memphis, TN), April 3, 1976, p. 7.
Washington Post, June 24, 1983, p. 35.
"Lonnie Liston Smith," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (December 1, 2004).
Lonnie Liston Smith Online, www.lovelandrecords.com (December 1, 2004).
—James M. Manheim