Happy Birthday Lonnie Liston Smith

December 28, 1940

A tribute to an atmospheric keyboardist

Pianist and keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith was born on December 28, 1940 in Richmond, Virginia.

Part of a musical family, Smith was playing piano (and also tuba and trumpet) by the time he was in high school.

After graduating from Morgan State University in 1961, he worked locally in Baltimore, accompanied singer Ethel Ennis and moved to New York in 1963.

Smith picked up important experience working with Betty Carter, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (1965) and briefly with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

A second stint with Kirk and a year with Max Roach preceded the beginning of a longtime association with Pharoah Sanders (starting in 1968) that put Lonnie Liston Smith on the map.

He began playing electric keyboards, worked with Gato Barbieri (1971-73), and found a way to mix together free jazz with spiritual Afro-Cuban jazz, vamps, light funk and music that was moody and atmospheric.

After a stint with Miles Davis in 1972, he formed the Cosmic Echoes, a large rhythm section that was a perfect outlet for his musical ideas, recording several alums for Flying Dutchman, RCA, Columbia and Doctor Jazz that could be considered crossover and attracted a large audience.

Since that time, Lonnie Liston Smith has had a lower profile but some of his best recordings have been reissued.

Here is Lonnie Liston Smith performing his accessible music in 2012.

-Scott Yanow