This recording doesn't have the lyrics, but you can look those up. What it does have is so much soul. So, so much soul. Jimmy Smith’s organ playing is so buttery and smooth it practically clogs your arteries. Between 1956 and 1964, he did forty recording sessions for Blue Note, and all of them are killers. He had a long and illustrious career afterwards, too, including playing the organ solo on “Bad” by Michael Jackson . Like all jazz organists, Jimmy Smith played basslines along with his chords and solos. (Pianists can play basslines for themselves too, but they’re usually accompanied by bassists, which frees them up.) On slow tempo tunes, Smith played walking bass lines on the pedals with his feet. At faster tempos, that was kind of impossible, so he played walking bass with one hand on the lower keyboard, and hit the pedals to emphasize certain notes. If this sounds like juggling while riding a bicycle, it is.
“On the Sunny Side of the Street” is totally over the top in its optimism, but it was written in the aftermath of the Wall Street crash of 1929. It’s fascinating to me that such a miserable period of history produced so much cheerful music. Was it just denial, or overcompensation? Or something deeper? I think it’s the latter. I think a lot about a conversation I had with my maternal grandmother, who treated me as a kind of Generation X ombudsman. At one point in the late 90s, she happened to see Nine Inch Nails on TV, and the next time we spoke, she demanded an explanation. She pointed out that her generation experienced the Depression, the Holocaust, and World War II, and through all of that they listened to upbeat music like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. My generation, by contrast, grew up in the peaceful and prosperous Clinton era, and yet we were listening to all this tortured and angry music. She wanted to know why. I thought it was an excellent question, and I still do.
The standard attitude held by my grandmother’s generation, the Greatest Generation, is that we Gen X kids had never experienced any actual hardship, so we didn’t know to be grateful for what we had. I have a different explanation: in spite of all the adversity faced by the Greatest Generation, it was maybe in some ways an easier time to be alive. There were good guys and bad guys in the world, and we Americans were the good guys. Things were hard, but getting better. There were no nuclear weapons, no climate change, no oceans full of plastic. The future looked bright. What kind of maniac is optimistic about the future in 2017? It’s nice to be reminded that a song like “On the Sunny Side of the Street” made sense at one point, even if it seems delusional now.
You can learn more about Jimmy Smith here:
About the Curator - Ethan Hein
Ethan Hein is a Doctoral Fellow in Music Education at New York University. He teaches music technology, production and education at NYU and Montclair State University. With the NYU Music Experience Design Lab , Ethan has taken a leadership role in the creation of new technologies for learning and expression, most notably the Groove Pizza . In collaboration with Soundfly, he has developed a series of online music theory courses . He maintains a widely-followed and influential blog , and has written for various publications, including Slate, Quartz, and NewMusicBox.