Life is filled with chance encounters and occurrences that, if a person is paying attention, can lead them to their true calling.

For Dr. Lonnie Smith, he can look back and see how he became one of the most towering figures in jazz. A friend who introduced him to a trumpet, a local music store owner who offered him an organ to play, running into saxophone legend Lou Donaldson at a gig all helped him discover who he was meant to be.

“Every one of us had angles in their lives — more than one. If you follow those angles, they take you right there,” he said.

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Smith has followed his angles to the pinnacle of his genre. Recognized as a master of the Hammond B3 organ, he has been awarded the 2017 National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Award — the highest honor in the jazz world.

His talent will be on full display at this year’s Indy Jazz Fest, where Smith will be one of the headlining acts to perform. The theme of the festival is “Hip Then, Hip Now,” taking an opportunity to bring virtuosos such as Smith and Grammy Award winners Randy Brecker and Kirk Whalum together with up-and-coming artists in the jazz world.

“I always look at the fest as a celebration. It’s to have fun, to introduce people who might not be tried-and-true jazz fans to the music and see if they want to check out more,” said David Allee, festival organizer and owner of the Jazz Kitchen. “There’s no better way to do that than to have them check out our modern masters, both here locally and nationally as well.”

Since it was founded in 1999, the Indy Jazz Fest has been dedicated to promoting jazz and music education throughout central Indiana. Indianapolis has its own noteworthy jazz heritage, when the Indiana Avenue neighborhood served as an incubator of great musicians on the same level of Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans.

In this vein, the jazz festival has tried to celebrate the legends of jazz seen through the prism of Indiana.

“We look at the past, the present and the future. Indianapolis runs neck-and-neck with even cities like New Orleans and Chicago in terms of having a great jazz heritage,” Allee said. “We want to keep that alive, and as other generations are coming along, they understand the importance of it and open the eyes to the music and cultures.”

Smith fits right into that mission.

Growing up in Buffalo, New York, Smith was surrounded by music. Almost all of the family on his mother’s side were singers. Jazz, gospel and blues were a way of life.

“My mother and I used to sing together around the house, scatting and making up songs that didn’t have any words. I was a little kid, and we just had so much fun,” Smith said.

His movement into playing instruments happened gradually as a child. Some of his friends played in the band, and he’d borrow their instruments and mess around with them.

Though he couldn’t read music, Smith had an ear for the form and structure of a song.

“One day I went in to a beginners’ class, and started playing the little song we had. Now, I couldn’t read music, so I hear the song, and figure it out. The teacher went, ‘Looks like we have a star in here.’ So he had me play in the school band,” he said.

Smith’s experience with instruments such as the trumpet and the trombone led to his infatuation with the organ. Hanging around a local music store, he told the owner, Art Kubera, that he really wanted to get his hands on a organ.

By chance, the owner had an organ that he offered to Smith.

“When he opened that door and I saw that organ — the sun’s rays came out, I could hear the angels’ voices and everything,” he said. “It all just fell into place.”

From that point on, Smith immersed himself in the powerhouse jazz organists of the day. He listened to Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett and Jimmy Smith.

As he started performing and playing more himself, he was invited to play with young stars such Donaldson and guitarist George Benson.

Smith bolstered his reputation supporting more esteemed musicians before recording as a band leader himself. His career was defined by his interest in varied and wide-ranging forms of music. In addition to more straight-forward jazz, he’s recorded covers of the Beatles, as well as tribute albums for Jimi Hendrix and Beck.

“Those angles, they show you want to do. They guide you,” he said.

Over more than 60 years, Smith has seen jazz music shift and evolve.

“You really don’t have the venues that they had back then, where you could learn from all of the other guys. You’d go to the jams and learn from them,” he said. “The young guys don’t have that anymore. They have all the tape and all the videos, so technically they’re sound, but the feeling of the music isn’t always there.”

That’s what makes the Indy Jazz Fest so important, Allee said. While the event helps expose new audiences to performers and sounds they otherwise might not know, it also helps fund the Indianapolis Jazz Foundation, which through its programs connects young musicians with more established players.

“What keeps us doing it every year is that we’re seeing more people come to the music,” Allee said. “There’s a residual curiosity about the music that spawns excitement throughout the year.”

If you go

Indy Jazz Fest

When: Through Sept. 23

Where: Locations throughout Indianapolis, including

  • The Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave., Indianapolis
  • IUPUI Campus Center Atrium, 420 University Blvd., Indianapolis
  • Madame Walker Theatre, 617 Indiana Ave., Indianapolis
  • Indianapolis Central Library, 40 E. St. Clair St.
  • Main Street, Speedway
  • Indiana Landmarks Center, 1201 Central Ave.

Full schedule and tickets: Go to IndyJazzFest.net

Can't-Miss Shows at the Indy Jazz Fest

The Indy Jazz Fest Organ Summit featuring Dr. Lonnie Smith

When: 7:30 and 10 p.m. today

Where: The Jazz Kitchen, 5377 N. College Ave., Indianapolis

Tickets: $40, $50

Why: Smith is virtuoso musician, composer, performer and recording artist, having been named a 2017 National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master. He has been featured on over 70 albums, and and performed with some of the greatest jazz, blues and R&B artists of all time.

Pavel & Direct Contact

When: 3 to 4:40 p.m. Sunday

Where: Indianapolis Central Library, 40 E. St. Clair St.

Tickets: Free

Why: The music of pianist Pavel & Direct Contact weaves through a blend of Caribbean and South American flavors.

Randy Brecker and the Indianapolis Jazz Collective

When: 6 and 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Jazz Kitchen

Tickets: $20, $30, $40

Why: Brecker is a Grammy-award winning, internationally renowned jazz trumpeter master providing a modern connection between jazz’s past and present. He has played and toured with artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Parliament/Funkadelic and Frank Sinatra.

Ignacio Berroa Cubop Quintet

When: 7 and 9 p.m. Wednesday

Where: The Jazz Kitchen

Tickets: $25, $35, $45

Why: Berroa, a famed drummer and band mate on Dizzy Gillespie’s last three bands, will perform a Dizzy Gillespie Celebration commemorating Gillespie’s 100th birthday.

Buselli Wallarab Jazz Orchestra presents “‘The Gennett Suite”

When: 7 p.m. Sept. 22

Where: Indiana Landmarks Center Cook Theater, 1201 Central Ave., Indianapolis

Tickets: $30, $40, $20 students

Why: Gennett Records, based in Richmond, Indiana, was one of the most important early jazz record labels. Louis Armstrong’s first recordings were in Richmond, and Jelly Roll Morton, Hoagy Carmichael and Duke Ellington all recorded a portion of their repertoire there. This concert will celebrate the 100th anniversary of Gennett’s founding.

Indy Jazz Fest Block Party

When: 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sept. 23

Where: 54th Street and College Avenue, Indianapolis

Tickets: $40 general admission, $100 VIP

Why: Always a highlight of the festival, this closing night celebration features food, drinks and great music from artists such as Bashiri Asad, Kevin Anker Experience featuring Tad Robinson and Taylor McFerrin.

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.