Sunday, June 9, 2013

Stuff Smith

Stuff Smith (Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith) was an American jazz violinist, singer, bandleader, and composer born (in Portsmouth, Ohio) on August 14, 1909.  Smith was the first jazz violinist to use an amplified (electric) violin.  However, as were jazz violinists Eddie South and Johnny Frigo, he was somewhat overshadowed by Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli.  As far as I know, he only studied violin with his father, beginning at age 6 or 7.  Another interesting thing about Smith is that he is buried in Denmark.  He took part - along with Duke Ellington and Count Basie - in the very first outdoor jazz festival – that was in May, 1938, in New York.  The festival was a huge success even though it ran for less than six hours.  It has been said that his sound was not smooth and pretty but his rhythmic drive, intensity, and inventiveness more than made up for that.  The same thing was said of classical violinist Bronislaw Huberman.  Smith began playing publicly with his family’s band when he was 12 years old.  He attended Johnson Smith University in North Carolina but left at age 15 - he played professionally from that age forward.  From 1926 to 1928 (one source says 1927 to 1930), Smith was a member of Alphonse Trent’s group.  Trent was a well-known bandleader whose band played in the finest hotels in the Southern U.S.  Smith was 19 years old.  Afterward, he free-lanced, touring with pianist Jelly Roll Morton, as well as other jazz musicians.  Although he did a lot of traveling, his home bases were Buffalo, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  He formed (with trumpet player Jonah Jones) the Onyx Club Boys, a sextet (one source says it was a quintet) which played at the Onyx Club, beginning in 1935, in New York City.  Often, he would perform with a monkey on his shoulder.  It was a stuffed monkey, of course.  Smith knew Fritz Kreisler and it has been said Kreisler admired his playing.  Smith recorded with a group called the Stuff Smith Trio, although the other two members of the trio alternated, depending on the instrumentation.  One source states that in 1943, he briefly took over Fats Waller’s band after Waller died.  Smith played in a group with jazz pianist Billy Taylor too.  On June 9, 1945, he, Billy Taylor, and Ted Sturgis (on bass) played a concert in New York’s famous Town Hall - Benny Goodman had already played his historic jazz concert in Carnegie Hall in 1938.  In 1947, Smith joined Jazz at the Philharmonic, a very large group of touring jazz musicians managed from Los Angeles and put together by Norman Granz, a jazz impresario.  It operated between 1944 and 1957.  Smith’s playing has been described as virtuosic, technically adventurous, and full of good humor.  Joel Smirnoff (violinist with the Juilliard String Quartet for many years) was quoted as saying that Stuff Smith’s point “was not to be sophisticated, but to swing as hard as possible.”  You can hear for yourself here.  Smith recorded enough material (for the Vocalion, Verve, Capitol, Decca, ASCH, and Varsity labels) to fill 6 or 7 of today’s CDs.  He recorded with Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Stephane Grappelli, among other artists.  He also played alongside many other jazz artists; Sun Ra and Charlie Parker are among them.  Here is a Smith video on YouTube.  His violin hold and posture were similar to that of French concert violinist Jacques Thibaud.  For reasons unknown (to me), between 1946 and 1955, Smith did very little commercial recording or none at all.  In 1958, Art Kane (Arthur Kanofsky) took a photo (for ESQUIRE Magazine) of 57 jazz musicians in front of an apartment building in Harlem (New York) titled A Great Day in Harlem.  Smith is the only jazz violinist in that photo.  Mary Lou Williams, Marian McPartland, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, Bud Freeman, Gene Krupa, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Mingus, and Sahib Shihab are among the jazz greats in that iconic portrait.  In 1965, Smith went to live in Copenhagen, Denmark.  For the rest of his life, he worked in Europe, sharing the stage with many European jazz players, some of whom had come from the U.S.  Stuff Smith died on September 25, 1967 (in Munich, Germany) at age 58.  A book by William F. Lee titled American Big Bands says Stuff Smith died (on the same date given above) in Chicago.  Even a great jazz violinist cannot die in two different places at the same time so I’m guessing, since Smith is buried in Denmark, that Munich is the far likelier place of death.  

3 comments:

  1. He did die in Europe. His widow is a friend of mine currently living in MN. She didn't even know he died until they phoned her in NY to tell her where he was buried! She never remarried.

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    1. Dear Fresh Air Lodging, Thank you so much for confirming this. It is so nice to have someone close to the facts write to let readers know; someone with personal knowledge... much better than reading it in a book!!!

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    2. Is his Widow still alive? If so I'd love to get her contact info as I am writing a book on the history of jazz violin!

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