Dr. Lonnie Smith and the cicadas

On Saturday I was pulling burning bush from the edge of our yard, herbiciding a mulberry sapling that couldn’t be pulled, and the cicadas were calling. It was 11 a.m., and their song from the treetops was a pulsing, intermittent hum like some part of the human machinery. This could have been the amplified sound of blood coursing through capillaries and run through a distortion pedal. The crickets harmonized higher in tone but lower in the trees and from the shrubs and prairie plants in our yard. It was the cicadas that filled the neighborhood.

The sound of the cicadas the past few days mixes with my impressions of Dr. Lonnie Smith at the Chicago Jazz Festival from Friday night, seated majestically in the middle of the stage behind the Hammond B3. His sounds are still in my ears. Through the legs of the organ I could see the Leslie speaker turning slowly. Smith was wearing a white tunic, white pants, a yellow scarf to the floor, and a yellow turban. The organ sounded as though he were breathing it, notes rich with harmonics, 91 tonewheels spinning inside the machine against their pickups reminiscent of the cicada’s buzzing tymbals. “Play life,” he tells his students. He filled the night air with cascades and explosions and waves. The moon was bright overhead. Throughout the trees in Millennium Park the cicadas were listening, silent, and only the katydids responded.

The Hammond B3 is particularly close to the human voice, breathy and corporeal. When you start a Hammond organ, you feel as though you were firing up a living thing. You hold a starter switch beneath the keyboard until the motor driving the tonewheels comes up to speed, then you flip the power switch on. The tubes warm up slowly, so if you are holding a chord it fades into full volume. Each key generates sound by turning on a mix of nine different tonewheels, each spinning adjacent to an electronic pickup, generating 9 different notes mechanically, analogous to the stridulations and buzzings of a cicada or cricket. The resulting harmonics give the organ a throaty, complex sound. Run through the Leslie, which introduces a high-energy Doppler-effect warble, the organ emits a throbbing, soaring, lifelike sound. In at least one of his interviews, Smith referred to that moment that the Leslie kicks in by saying something to the effect of, “and then Heaven opens up.” I’ve never heard a better description.

But the Hammond organ takes in not just the droning sound of the cicada, nor its harmonics. In the right hands, it evokes a sermon as much as a song. Dr. Lonnie Smith is 75 years old and a master of the instrument. Watching his face, you see him discover what he is playing as he plays it, by turns firing ideas into the world and resting to catch the next wave, or playing out note by note what is coming to him. He possesses, like any artist, a lightning rod tuned to the sounds of his instrument and the skill to translate the pulses and thoughts that run through him into physical stuff. Like a great preacher or lecturer, he absorbs everything he has experienced or read or heard and shapes it for us. He leaves us delighted.

I am writing this four days after seeing him play, thinking over and over what he was doing up there on stage. Perhaps this analogy between the organ and the cicadas has nothing to do with the Hammond B3 or with Dr. Lonnie Smith. It is my effort to hold onto this moment, and perhaps it is no more than that. As I write this, the crickets are wrapping up for the night and the goldfinches are starting up. Two nighthawks appear to be roosting in the pine tree next to our house. Venus is dimming in the east. The cats have come in to eat and sleep. I have a paper to work on, and the boys will be up soon. But my ears are still filled with organ music.