Dr. Lonnie Smith is one of those people who channels joy.
You can hear it even over a long distance call from Florida.
And you can really hear it when he sits down and works his magic on the keyboard of a Hammond B-3 organ.
A 2017 NEA Jazz Master, Smith plays his sole Montana concert at the Myrna Loy Center, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22.
And that just could be the perfect medicine to heat up an icy cold February night in Montana.
Smith and trio members Jonathan Kreisberg on guitar and Johnathan Blake on drums will play songs from Smith’s new album, “All In My Mind.”
It’s his 26th album, in addition to playing on more than 70 albums with many of the jazz, blues and R&B giants in the industry.
The NEA Award -- the most prestigious honor a jazz performer can earn -- joins an already impressive list of distinctions he’s garnered dating back to 1969 when Downbeat Magazine named him Top Organist of the year.
Although his multi-award-winning career spans six decades, the joy is obviously still there when you watch him play.
“I always had passion, but I have even more as time goes on,” said Smith in an IR phone interview from Florida. “It’s the love for this instrument and the love for the music and the love for the people.”
Smith is known for playing “in the moment,” whether its one of his originals or a jazz standard he’s playing with his own take.
He doesn’t rehearse what he’s going to play that evening.
He laughs at the idea of playing a song the same way all the time.
“No, I’m going to throw a curveball...or maybe a drop ball, you never know what it’s going to be. I might like it, or I might not like it.
“The great thing about it is the audience is feeling exactly the way I feel.”
Although he’s recorded a lot of albums, playing for a live audience is what he truly loves.
“You want to touch the people. You don’t want to just play for yourself.”
And some members of the audience have been surprised to be touched, telling him after a concert that they weren’t even jazz fans before hearing him play.
While some writers describe his music as funk jazz, Smith says “those aren’t my words.”
He prefers to describe his music as having “an easy groove” and calls it “spiritual.”‘
“It makes you feel good.”
“It’s transcendent. That is the key word. This is what I feel, I love to take the people with me on the journey.”
Music has taken him on a journey all over the world from his childhood home in Buffalo, New York.
And some might say, quite an unlikely journey it’s been.
As a kid he was immersed in gospel, blues and jazz music in his home, thanks to his mother and her family, who would come over and sing.
Smith played the trumpet in high school and sang in his own vocal group in the late ‘50s.
It was a bit of luck and an act of amazing generosity that first brought a Hammond B-3 organ into his life.
Smith used to visit a music store owned by Art Kubera every day until closing time, Smith recounts on the NEA website.
One day, Kubera asked him “Why do you come in every day and just sit?”
To which Smith responded, “Well, if I had an instrument, I could work. If I could work, I could make a living.”
One day when Smith was there, Kubera closed up and took Smith to the back of the shop to his house.
He opened the door, showing Smith a Hammond B-3 organ, and said, “If you can get this out, it’s yours.”
Well, Smith, with the help of his brothers, wrestled the behemoth into a truck and home despite the snow.
And it’s been a musical match, some might say, in heaven. Smith refers to Kubera as his “angel.”
Smith, who is self-taught on the organ, started playing in one of Buffalo’s hottest jazz clubs, The Pine Grill, according to his bio. There he grabbed the attention of such folks as Lou Donaldson and George Benson, who he would go on to play with in New York.
There they earned a reputation as innovators in the Harlem clubs scene.
He also recorded with Donaldson, and their album “Alligator Boogaloo,” became a top hit. A New York Times article refers to Smith’s career as “a half century of swing and funk and blues.”
“But he really seems to be up to something bigger than music, and older, and deeper. An hour and a quarter in his presence, and you start thinking about the nature of time, ancestors, the circulatory system. His tunes are relatively simple...but they are done with so much care and attention that they seem to slow down the heart rate.”
Although Smith attests to no religion, he speaks of a spiritual mission.
“I am a man who was here before, and if I should pass I will return to complete my work. I really feel I’m here for a purpose and that’s to help some of the people...feel good,” he said, noting how hard some people struggle in life.
“You give them that little bit of happiness so they can keep going.”
Tickets are $27 and are available at 443-0287, online at Myrnaloycenter.com, or at the box office, 15 N. Ewing.