The Self-Styled Sikh Legend Of Acid Jazz - Homegrown

The Self-Styled Sikh Legend Of Acid Jazz

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The man who raised hell in Harlem with his Hammond B-3, is almost as prolifically known for his turban as he is for his tunes - and his sound is recognized worldwide. Known by many as the guru of the Hammond organ, Doctor Lonnie Smith, otherwise known as the forefather of Acid Jazz, has over five decades experience of letting loose with his ebullient fingertips. Just last year Doc bagged the NEA Jazz Masters Award, which is like the Lifetime achievement Award of Jazz.

But rather than measure Lonnie by his awards, the man has jammed out with his ‘425 pound beast’ in every jazz joint worth its salt in the USA. Moreover, he’s worked with stalwart jazz labels like Kudu, Groove Merchant, T.K., Scufflin’, Criss Cross and Palmetto. And if that wasn’t enough street cred already, you might recognize his scintillating organ riff sampled on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” Yes, even the hiphop world can’t get enough of the Doc.

Point being, you’d be hard pressed to find a jazz fan who would question Lonnie’s skill on the organ. The question of his turban, however, is a damn mystery.

As Jazz Times describes Lonnie, he’s a “a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a turban!” And they sure are right! Since the seventies Lonnie has donned a sikh-style turban on his dome, and the man looks right at home in it. Yet even some of his longtime fans don’t know why the man who squeezes sweet melody out of his organ wears traditional Sikh garb. Sikhwiki, among other sources, cites Lonnie as a pious converter, but it turns out that was just wishful thinking on the writer’s part.

In truth, Lonnie’s sikh-like get up is merely about style. Lord knows why New York-born Lonnie thought the pappe organist look would work. Nevertheless, his beard and turban, often coupled with a kurta decorated with oms, have served Lonnie well by adding to a mystique he prides himself upon.

Lonnie confided to Jazz Times on the rarely broached topic of his turban. “I used to wear turbans when I was young, way before I first recorded...I started wearing turbans early; I don’t know why. And I didn’t know that this was gonna be it for me when I started wearing them, but I’ve never given it up. I have taken it off and played without it. But at this point the turban has become so much of me that the people expect it; it’s what they recognize. Sometimes I do think, ‘Well, what if I just don’t wear it anymore?’ But that’s me. Taking it off at this point is like pulling the mask off the Lone Ranger. Some people just love that mystery. I mean, why does Michael Jackson wear one glove?”

He’s also not a real doctor, but feels his mastery of the organ constitutes some sort of titled recognition. Though with his long, fast-paced solos, he’s probably given more heart attacks than he’s prevented.

But Lonnie’s weirdness works for him as his fake title and sikh getup add to his eclectic appearance. His turban does exoticize the East, more specifically sikhism, yet everything the man touches he makes exotic in some way. Hailed as one of the best organists in the world, Lonnie can’t even read music. Almost everything he plays is improvised.

Peter Bernstein, Lonnie’s longtime accompanying guitarist spoke to Jazz Times about playing with the enigmatic improviser, commenting, “by him being a performing, improvising person, it’s really a visual thing as much as it is the sound of what he’s creating because everything he plays is completely in his body, in his face. Everything is a musical gesture. It’s all feeling, so there’s nothing fake about what he’s doing on stage.”

To this end, his turban is a musical gesture. Perhaps wearing the turban would seem more offensive if he were a bad musician, but the man is a genius on the Hammond B-3.

Even though it is still strange Lonnie uses the turban as a mode of style, it comes off as a good kind of strange. He’s certainly not doing it in a derogatory sense. The man has worn a turban and kept his beard for over 50 years - that’s commitment right there. And even though he might not subscribe to all the beliefs of sikhism, his wearing the sikh turban is not meant to do the religion any harm.

In truth, wearing a turban shows support of the rich sikh community in the USA, which has suffered mindless and ignorant harassment after 9/11. From 2012’s mass gurdwara shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin to a NYC taxi driver having his turban pulled off by a band off drunken young men just a few months ago, the turban has proved to be a target for uneducated Americans who are predisposed to violence. So even if it is just for style, having another brother on NYC’s blocks rocking the sikh turban could be seen as an act of solidarity.

We can only hope Lonnie makes it to NYC’s next Turban Day on April 15th, where Sikhs from across New York tye turbans for other Americans and educate them on their religion - of course, in this case Lonnie would be educating folks on style. Be easy Doc - except for those high-speed hands!

Feature image via San Jose Jazz Summer Fest

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