Lonnie Liston Smith


What started out as attempts to make hits spawned into ageless classics for old-school lovers of Jazz and a backdrop for artists of other genres to pair with their sounds. Sampled by Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Young Jeezy, Ne-Yo and others, Lonnie Liston’s Smith’s “A Garden of Peace” was just one of his jams proved as a timeless piece of art, which he says surprised and inspires him.

“It’s amazing how they all took one song and made different arrangements, but it works,” Lonnie comments. “When I created that piece, I said I wanted to create hits on every album I made. I always went into creating by putting my heart and soul in everything. Back then, I thought, ‘We all need a garden of peace in this world and a piece of mind in this day and age.’”

As popular R&B, Soul and Hip Hop artists blend the legendary musician’s work with their creations, Lonnie says they share a piece of the classical genre with a generation who can appreciate it.

“Jazz doesn’t get the proper exposure it deserves,” he admits. “Young kids would fall in love with it, but aren’t exposed to it because it’s not on the radio.

The versatile artist says the use of modern technology can re-create the presence of Jazz, but it isn’t the only solution to how the less-popular genre can draw more support in the music community.

“The music industry is going through a transformation, and the internet is powerful because music can be heard all over the world and can solve problems in the music industry,” he adds. “But to see artists, feel their music and to be exposed to their stage presence, you can’t replace that.”

Lonnie recalls his relationship with music as the child of a father who was a singer and guitar player. As a member of the gospel group The Harmonizing Four, Lonnie’s father was invited by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to sing at The White House after the death of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Always surrounded by music, the Richmond, Va. native also remembers singers such as the late Sam Cooke as a recurrent visitor in his home, among others.

Although he was reared in a Baptist church, Lonnie says he was intrigued with R&B and Jazz. It was the late and legendary composer Charlie Parker who struck a chord with the young lad.

“When I heard Charlie Parker play “Just Friends” when I was in high school, I said ‘What is that? I want to do that!’” he says.

Under the tutelage of Miles Davis, Lonnie says he learned more about versatility and improvisation as he worked alongside of him, but specifically the significance of them in his music.

“He [Miles] would get upset if you didn’t come up with something new every night you performed,” he recalls. “But, I realized he was only trying to make me and other musicians better and greater.”

Throughout his career, Lonnie challenged his skills in improvisation and in musical techniques as he ventured to the use of other instruments. Known for his skills on the grand piano, Lonnie says Miles tested the pianist and composer with the Japanese electric organ. The musician’s curiosity didn’t cease as he also learned to master the Fender Rhodes electric piano.

“People rushed over as I started playing it and composing a song,” Lonnie recollects. “They said I needed to start recording it and the first song I recorded playing that piano was “Astral Traveling”.”

With over 40 years of experience in the music industry, the veteran artist recognizes new blood on the scene who takes an innovative spin to Jazz, while respecting the classics. Lonnie also believes not only do aspiring artists need more exposure to the genre, but opportunities where they can showcase themselves, much like how he discovered bassist Marcus Miller as a teenager.

“There are a lot of young, creative musicians who are unknown out there and they got me rejuvenated,” he admits. “So, I said to myself, ‘Let me get back to playing.’ Young musicians don’t have the opportunities from back in the day because there used to be jam sessions, but maybe it’ll come back around again.”

Lonnie will be appearing with keyboardists Mark Adams and Brian Jackson at Yoshi’s-San Francisco jazz club for a “Soulful Night of Keys” on November 1st & 2nd.

by Iya Bakare

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