I have a weird affection for people and institutions that use of the name “Doctor” in slightly inappropriately or unconventional ways. I attribute this to growing up watching the 1980s Philadelphia 76ers with their star player Dr. Julius Irving. I remember how exciting it was to discover that on the road between the site of Koutsopetria and downtown Larnaka there was a food truck called the Doctor of Hunger (Γιατρός της πείνας). And, I love that for much of his career the soul jazz organist Lonnie Smith went by the name Dr. Lonnie Smith.
He also wore a turban for some reason which he connected, apparently, to Sun Ra’s propensity to wear odd hats.
Every few years I get drawn back to his music and when I heard that he had died on September 28th, it was easy to take a dive into his recordings. His 1970s Blue Note albums have perhaps attracted the most attention, especially 1968s Think, which includes the grooviest version of “Three Blind Mice” that you’ll ever hear. It’s useful to pain his Blue Note recordings in the late 1960s and early 1970s with his work as a sideman with Lou Donaldson around the same time including the iconic Midnight Creeper from 1968 and Everything I Play is Funky from 1970 (with Blue Mitchell on trumpet and cornet), which includes a deep performance of “Over the Rainbow,” which I just love. Finally, Smith’s only recording for Creed Taylor (on their soul jazz oriented Kudu imprint), Mama Wailer (1971) is fantastic as well. The first two tracks show Latin influence on Smith’s playing and composition, while the last two tracks just roll (especially his cover of “I Feel the Earth Move”).
One of the more interesting things about Lonnie Smith (at least to me) is that he favored small neighborhood venues throughout the 1970s rather than the usual itinerary of jazz clubs. I suspect this both reflects the changing landscape of jazz during this time, as some of the better known clubs struggled (e.g. the Five Spot, Birdland, or Slug’s Saloon) or diversified from jazz into other kinds of performances (e.g. the Village Gate), as well as the popular character of his music. Unfortunately, this means that we don’t really have as many of his live performances from this period as we would would like. Blue Note, however, did release one recording from this era in 1995, recorded at the Club Mozambique in Detroit in 1970.
This got me thinking about projects like the Detroit Sound Conservancy who seek to preserve and conserve the legacy of music in Detroit and the Music Origins Project which seeks the more modest goal of geolocating important venues. The note that Conelius Watt’s Club Mozambique was just the kind of neighborhood venue that Lonnie Smith enjoyed playing. Although the club burned down in 2015 (and the club had moved on from live music by then), the list of musicians who had played at the club in the 1970s is a veritable who’s who of soul jazz, soul, funk and R&B. The only two albums made from recordings there appear to be Lonnie Smith’s 1970 date and Grant Green’s 1971 date at the club.
It’s interesting to listen to these two albums back to back. While they both are masterpieces of the early 1970s soul jazz idiom, I got to wondering how they reflected the venue where the musicians played and the social, economic, and political context of the Black community in Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (As an aside, I’m beyond excited for Krysta Ryzewski’s book Detroit Remains: Archaeology and Community Histories of Six Legendary Places to appear next year!). In other words, can we do an archaeology of a particular venue at a particular moment through the careful listening to live recordings? As a number of critics have observed, Grant Green’s performance at Club Mozambique was quite different from his near contemporary performance at Cliche Lounge in Newark, New Jersey. The former feels just a bit looser and maybe more engaged than his better known performance in New Jersey? Maybe this is just something that I’m imagining?
Whatever the case, both Green’s and Smith’s album from Club Mozambique are worth a listen. Both do more than just capture the sound of a time and place in the history of 1970s jazz music. Both albums are good music and what better way to honor the memory of the late Dr. Lonnie Smith than to listen to some of his finest performances.