A Conversation With Jazz Legend Lonnie Liston Smith

Matthew Ritchie speaks with the Richmond, Va. jazz legend about his ‘Jazz Is Dead’ album with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, his philosophies on music and its healing power, and more.
By    June 13, 2023

Image via Jazz is Dead

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Matthew Ritchie says that The Manhattans’ After Midnight is the best slow jam album ever.

Lonnie Liston Smith’s passion for gaining knowledge and understanding has led him through countless books and texts, so it was unsurprising that he encountered Amiri Baraka’s Blues People on his intellectual journey. As the 82-year-old mused about Black people’s intrinsic relationship to jazz music and his own journey through the history of the genre, there’s an undeniable joy that was felt through the phone when the book was brought up. Baraka’s seminal historical text from 1963 explained two facts that are inarguable — the history of Black American people and the history of the music they produced (gospel, blues, and jazz) are entirely intertwined, reflecting and explaining each other. The second fact was articulated by Smith after I asked him if he had read Blues People during his years spent living in New York in the 70s.

“People have to remember now, mostly all the music in America was imported,” said Smith. “The only real music created in America is the gospel, blues, and jazz. That’s modern American music, and of course, blues started way back during slavery when Black people were out on the fields. That’s really all the music that was created in America.”

The Richmond, Virginia native’s entire life has been a manifestation of this inseparable relationship. Gospel music and its stars filled his childhood home, thanks to his father’s membership in the gospel group “The Harmonizing Four.” The likes of Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers would stroll through his family’s halls, as Smith unconsciously absorbed the genre’s tenets through osmosis. As he moved through his childhood and high school years, experimenting on his family’s piano and turning his ear toward other genres, the watershed moment in his journey occurred when a friend’s father put on a unique record one day.

“He was playing the record and I said, ‘Well what is that? It was beautiful.” said Smith. “He said, ‘Well, that’s Charlie Parker playing ‘Just Friends’ with strings.’ I asked him why it was so beautiful — he told me he was doing improvisation, [Parker] was creating in the moment. That’s when I decided that’s what I wanted to do. That’s when I really got interested in jazz.”

This moment spurred an illustrious career that has spanned four decades and pushed upon the boundaries of blues and jazz with elegant curiosity. Prior to his solo career, he forged a path working in the bands of Miles Davis and Pharoah Sanders, gleaning all he could from the legends before beginning his own artistic journey. His work in the ‘70s on albums like his debut Astral Traveling (1973), Expansions (1975), and Visions of a New World (1975) sought to introduce a universality to jazz, surrounding his transcendent piano compositions with funky bass lines and light percussion, which gives his records an expansive feeling. The marriage of jazz, funk, and blues – “Cosmic Blues,” as he coined it during our phone call – became the staple of Smith’s sound, settling into a groove that rested in an atmospheric plane.

So it’s no surprise that 50 years after his first album, Smith’s return to music with Jazz Is Dead 17, a collaboration with Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad that taps into the exact vein that first put him next to the names Coltrane and Sanders. The nine tracks represent his return to music, coaxed out of his hiatus by the prospect of being flown out to Los Angeles to be part of Jazz Is Dead’s unique recording series. When he arrived on the West Coast, he was presented with a studio rife with equipment from the 70s, a bass player and drummer, and a simple plan.

“They said, ‘We have these ideas, or motifs, and we want you to develop them…and then you just play,’” said Smith.

Lonnie Liston Smith’s Jazz Is Dead retains the tenets of his discography’s core values, hinging upon the themes of love, rebirth, and universal harmony – as Smith continues to use his music as a healing tool. Sprawling, freeform compositions call back to the freedom that existed within his heyday. His driving electric keyboard crashes on “Love Brings Happiness” and “Fête.” Smith’s edition of Jazz Is Dead puts a modern twist on the throwback blues compositions that endeared him to generations of listeners.

Last month, I spoke with Smith about why he decided to return to the keys at this point, the power of jazz music as a healing component, what if feels like to be appreciated at this stage of his career, and his journey throughout life and music.

First of all, how are you doing today?

Lonnie Liston Smith: Oh, I’m okay. Just kicking back, hanging out. That’s about it during the day.

Are you still out there in Virginia?

Lonnie Liston Smith: Yeah, we’re up there in Glen Allen, so it’s not too busy and it’s kind of quiet so it’s nice.

It’s probably nice to live a quiet life now, isn’t it?

Lonnie Liston Smith: Oh, yeah. I’ve been traveling all over the world, and jumping on planes and trains and all different countries. So you’re right about that.

So this Jazz Is Dead album – when did this first come about? How long have you been working on it?

Lonnie Liston Smith: This situation [is] because I never recorded this way before. So back then, just before the pandemic hit in 2020 and I got a call from Drew. And he’s the business representative for the record label Jazz is Dead, which I had never heard of. They said ‘Yeah, well, we recorded Roy Ayers, we recorded Gary Bartz, Jean Carne.’ And he said, ‘We’ll fly you to LA and you know, everything will be on the up and up. And then press so you get paid for the record and we do a concert and get paid for the concert.’ And so you know, so I go to LA and when I get to the studio, they are really into the 70s. The studio was full of all 70s equipment, keyboards, soundboard, everything.

And so then I was introduced to Adrian [Younge] and Ali [Shaheed Muhammad] because I wasn’t familiar with them. And they say, ‘What happens is we record a little bit different.’ So when I got to the studio, there was only a bass player, a drummer and you know, my keyboards. And they said, ‘Well, we have these ideas, or motifs, and we want you to develop them. And then you just play and develop and when you leave town, you know that when the artist leaves town, we add everything to it.’

And I said, ‘Wow. Okay, this is interesting. I’ve never done it this way before.’ So I played on each one, there were no titles or anything. And so I left town and then they were adding all the stuff, I start hearing just how they were putting things together – some songs they added a vocal, all kinds of different, you know, sounds and colors and so when I finally heard the final result, I said, ‘Okay, it worked.’ Now it’s amazing. Matthew, people… people are just really excited.

You’d said you had never created a record like that before, like how you used to do in the 70s and 80s. How did the process for this album compare?

Lonnie Liston Smith: Oh, yeah, let’s see now. Back then, even when I would record with other people, we would always get together. I would have songs and then somebody else might have a song and we’d go, ‘Okay. Yeah, I like that.’ It’s like when I first met Marcus Miller, he was 18 years old. He brought some songs in and we’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s nice.’ So we had the songs, then we have a lil’ rehearsal, then the studio, you know, with the whole band. And just, you know, do each song.

But this way, it was, like I said.. Well, it was just myself, the bass player, and drummer – then I just developed these ideas, then they would add. They’d listen to it. ‘Okay, well we can put a vocal here and different instruments here.’ So that’s another thing. Because in the past, you know, I was recording, I would be in there with an engineer when they were mixing it and things like that, but I think people recorded a little bit differently today.

I used to call Adrian and Ali and tease them – I’d say, ‘Y’all gotta remember when you’re putting everything together.. you know I’m cosmic now.’ [laughs] But, I’m doing interviews all over Europe and seeing things happening in Asia, so everyone really likes it.

It’s great that it seems like you liked it and were satisfied with it.

Lonnie Liston Smith: Most definitely, I just had to get used to this way of doing it. But the vocalist sounds good.

How did it feel to be creating and playing.. just being part of a record again?

Lonnie Liston Smith: That was great. They put a band together for the live concert. They were all really young musicians. They had the full band – horns, guitar, bass, excellent tuba players, and two keyboards. Being around all these young musicians, it was a good experience. You can hear it, particularly in the young musicians.. seeing how they think, as it relates to the music. Something great really happened there.

Out there they have a nice studio and a record store set up. One day we did an interview for a station in London in there. They had a DJ and everything, and he was playing a song. And I said, ‘Wow that’s a beautiful song, who is that?’ And they laughed. Everyone looked at me and said, ‘Lonnie, that’s you.’ I’ve never had that experience before, where they were playing one of my songs and I forgot I made it. It was called “Just Us Two.” It was just a whole lot of good experiences.

When you work with those young musicians, does it take you back to the moments were you where in their shoes?

Lonnie Liston Smith: That’s exactly what happened. Because I started reflecting, and realized there’s a lot of talent still out here. People seem to care about the music, so it stays alive. People don’t realize music.. it’s really important. Music really helps people, it heals people. Music is probably the only universal language – because you can go to different countries, and you might not be able to speak it verbally with other musicians. But once the music starts, everyone understands and can just go on and play.

Talking about the album itself.. I’ve always felt like your records try to be expansive and universal. I feel like that Jazz Is Dead record still hinges upon that feeling — is that a feeling that you will always try to capture no matter what?

Lonnie Liston Smith: Oh yeah, because when I was playing with Miles Davis.. shoot, Miles had a tabla player from India, guitars from all over, he had congas – you want the music to be universal. Every country has a different rhythm, beat pattern, but you can still relate to it and create on whatever is presented to you. I always wanted to present that universal music, that universal sound to the world. John Coltrane did it, he did a great job. It’s important. When I go to different countries and people say, ‘the music you made really helped me,’ or I meet kids in college that say, “Music helped me get through school,’ that’s what real music does.

So you just tried to capture the world, in all its corners on your records?

Lonnie Liston Smith: Definitely. The first time I wrote lyrics was with Expansions. I was studying different philosophies and religions from all around the world. And I realized everybody wants the same thing. Everybody wants peace, harmony, and love. So that’s what I felt like saying on the record. Expand your mind and give peace a chance.

And is that why the themes of love and rebirth have been strewn throughout your music?

Lonnie Liston Smith: Yeah, because we definitely need that. We deal with a lot of problems every day. They can make everything seem really negative. I’m just trying to put, through the music, the idea that we have to be positive and try to make a better world. Otherwise, if we don’t work together, that’s just complete chaos. I feel like we need a new beginning and rebirth right now. With everything that’s been going on worldwide for the last few years.. it’s been really strange.

I want to sort of talk about your relationship with jazz, and how you sort of came to it..

Lonnie Liston Smith: Well, you know I came from a musical family, right?

Yeah, can you talk about that a little bit?

Lonnie Liston Smith: My father is a member of the “Harmonizing Four” gospel group, and they performed all over the world. And, you know, they would have gospel festivals back then when I was a kid. And so each year my father, he’s out there performing at the gospel festival in Richmond, Virginia, because that’s where they were from. Then it moved to different cities. But I met all the people, ‘The Dixie Humming Birds,’ I think also ‘The Soul Stirrers’ with Sam Cooke. I met ‘The Blind Boys’ – everybody is really into them now. But it was normal for me. So I’m just… I’m just a kid, I’m taking all this for granted. And so it’s just [that] I was just surrounded by music. I have two younger brothers. You heard Donald singing on Expansions. A lot of my songs. I have a middle brother Ray Smith. He started a group called the Jarmels in Richmond and had a big hit called “A Little Bit of Soap” much radio tears. And then when I was in high school, I went over to one of my friend’s house and you know, his father was into jazz, and he was playing this record and I said, ‘Well, what is that? It was beautiful.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s Charlie Parker playing “Just Friends” with strings.’ And I asked him, ‘well, why is this beautiful? So what is he doing?’ He was doing improvisation. He’s creating in the moment.

All right, well that’s what I want to do. And so that’s when I really got interested in jazz. And then I started listening to all these great jazz musicians, like all these pianists like Art Tatum? Oscar Peterson, Earl Gardner, Fats Waller, and you got all the great, you know, horn players – Charlie Parker, you know, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis. I mean everyone so, y’know, like I said, I just listened to [them] all through high school. I went to Baltimore for school, and Gary Bartz is from Baltimore. And he was definitely into jazz and his father owned a club called the North End Lounge. And then Gary and I started playing there at his father’s club and just playing jazz, you know, all around Baltimore.

And what was that like, being able to explore the scene and have your own experiences in Baltimore?

Lonnie Liston Smith: It was great. Back then, jam sessions were big things and good for younger musicians. You could sit in with these older musicians, and they would all be testing you, and it was good for you. I started working with people like Ethel Ennis at the Red Fox Club, and ran with great musicians, plus others that would come to town. Later I got a job at the Royal Theatre and would play with top acts that would come in each week. Back then, Baltimore was global…it was a great training ground.

We talked about Amiri Baraka’s Blues People and the relationship between jazz, blues, and gospel with black people. For you personally, what is it about that intrinsic relationship that draws Black people towards jazz?

Lonnie Liston Smith: People have to remember now, mostly all the music in America was imported. The only real music created in America is the gospel, blues, and jazz. That’s modern American music, and of course, blues started way back during slavery when Black people were out on the fields. That’s really all the music that was created in America. It’s inside of us, and it shows up in the most wild ways.

But I remember, with Pharoah Sanders, the last record we did together was called Thembi and we were out there in LA in the studio, and I saw a new instrument. But before that, I played the grand piano and asked the engineer, ‘What is that instrument in the corner?’ He said it was a Fender Rhodes electric piano. So I just walked over just to see what it sounds like it and as I sit down, they put a few little knobs on it. I just found the right grooves that gave me this song. And then Pharoah and everyone ran over and said, ‘Man, that’s beautiful. We got to record that. What are you gonna call it?’

I said ‘Okay, let’s go with “Astral Traveling”,’ because I was studying astral projection at the time. And that was the first time I started to use the electric piano. But years later, when I analyzed the song, it was 12-bar.. I call it 12-bar cosmic blues. I’m using different colors. Still using the regular blues changes, but you know, I still came out with a 12-bar. You know, I call it cosmic blues, a 21st-century blues.

So you’ve always got the basics structures of blues and gospel inside, and then branch out with that creativity in jazz?

Lonnie Liston Smith: That’s what you expand on. Everyone is trained to play the 12-bar blues, but what they did with it.. oh my goodness.

Can you talk a little bit about your time in New York?

Lonnie Liston Smith: New York.. back then, all the creative musicians were in New York. I never heard of people like Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra until I got to New York. Once I got there, it was a whole ‘nother world. How they would approach the piano. You can go out each night and hear all these different musicians and become better just by listening – you were just surrounded by great creativity. When I was working with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Thelonious Monk came down one night in the dressing room and said, ‘All musicians got to find their own sound, because anyone can copy.’ And that stuck with me.

It was just so creative. When I first did Expansions, we did that in Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studio. We could go to the music store and see different musicians in the music store.

I can’t imagine the feeling of the 70s, when everyone was studying different religions or philosophies. What drew you to that intellectual curiosity?

Lonnie Liston Smith: All of us were coming out of the church.. so we all just tried to expand on that. There was a bookstore up in Harlem called the Tree of Life, with all these great books from all over the world. So you start studying, and you begin to see that there’s this universal concept, a real universal oneness where it didn’t matter which country you came from.

A strange thing happened on my first night in New York. I put my bags down and ran to the original Bird Land club. I heard they were having a jam session. While in there, a complete stranger walked up to me and gave me a book. He said, ‘Oh, this is what you’re looking for.’ It was a great book called Mysticism of Sound. He introduced himself and it was John Gilmore, one of the featured artists with Sun Ra. But you know, that’s one of those things where I believe that it was supposed to happen.

One of my first nights living in New York, I went to a jazz bar, and it was interesting. It felt kind of reserved, it didn’t feel like a jam session. It felt more like a performance, less free or off-the-cuff.

Lonnie Liston Smith: That’s a great example. Because you want that spontaneity, where some young musician might get up and start playing, exciting everyone because you don’t know what they’re going to do. It makes a big difference.

How have you seen the ideas of jazz shift throughout your career?

Lonnie Liston Smith: It was a lot more free. With today, I think you have a lot of younger musicians.. back then, there was no perfect school of music. You had to depend on yourself and discover who you really are, what you wanted to do, and how you really wanted to do it. A lot of musicians now, they need to find out that real sound that’s inside of them. Anyone can copy. People now, they’re transcribing people’s past solos and memorizing all that. That’s not creating.

Music has to have that hunger and freeness.

I know we touched on it, but how important is jazz.. both to you and to Black culture?

Lonnie Liston Smith: Jazz music is creative, and that fosters creativity in the person that listens. When I was in college, I would listen to Coltrane and Miles, and sometimes you might feel a little down. But when you put that music on, it made you feel better, it rejuvenated you. It messed with your creative spark. When people get older, they realize jazz made life better for them.

Is it nice to be able to reflect on the stuff you’ve created and see where you were at in different points in your life?

Lonnie Liston Smith: I’ve done so many albums and composed so many songs, sometimes you forget. So I just go back and listen to the old albums that people liked and review them myself. It’s interesting. Because you just get so busy getting ready for the next record, you can take a lot of things you’ve ever done for granted.

What effect has music had on you, throughout your entire life?

Lonnie Liston Smith: For me, music is everything. When I would be really depressed, I can just sit at the piano and start playing. Everything becomes beautiful, and you become rejuvenated. People need music, even when I heard “Leave the Door Open” by Silk Sonic. I was in London and other places overseas, everybody was listening to the same song. It just made everything during the pandemic that much better. It all feels amazing, much brighter. Music is phenomenal.

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