Friday, June 14, 2013

Johnny Smith: Quiet and Dignified

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"As far as I'm concerned, no one in the world plays the guitar better than he. They might play it differently, but nobody plays better. Johnny could easily overplay because he's got chops unlimited, but his musical taste would not allow him to make an over­statement. As a result, he makes beautiful music."
- Barney Kessell, Jazz guitarist

The few times I was in his presence – mainly accompanying friends to the guitar clinics he was conducting – Johnny Smith, who died on June 12th at the age of ninety-five - struck me as a quiet and dignified man.

He was universally adored by Jazz guitarists.

Although he reappeared on the Jazz scene from time-to-time, most of his now-legendary recordings were made in the 1950s.

Before opening a guitar store in Colorado Springs, CO in 1958, Johnny was very active in the New York studios.

Fortunately for Jazz fans, and notwithstanding their commercial aspects, in what has become an almost customary act of conscience and consideration, Michael Cuscuna and his fine team at Mosaic Records have assembled Johnny’s classic recordings into an 8 CD set and issued it as The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions [MD8-216].  The set is still available at

The highlights of Johnny’s career, the reasons for his relocation to Colorado and his own thoughts about his music are covered in detail in the accompanying booklet to the Mosaic set which were written in 2002 by Vincent Pelote of the Institute of Jazz Studies which is on the campus of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, NJ.

Here are excerpts from the introduction [paragraphing modified].

© -Vincent Pelote/Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Johnny Smith hasn't been a household name since his hit single Moonlight in Vermont in 1952. There is the occasional magazine or newspaper article, but it is largely the guitar community (a rather clannish bunch) who still sings the praises of this titan of the guitar. Guitarist Barney Kessel once said about Smith: "As far as I'm concerned, no one in the world plays the guitar better than he. They might play it differently, but nobody plays better. Johnny could easily overplay because he's got chops unlimited, but his musical taste would not allow him to make an over­statement. As a result, he makes beautiful music." Kessel's comments are indicative of the universal respect that Smith enjoys among his fellow guitarists. While Smith himself steadfastly maintains that he does not consider himself a jazz player, critics and musicians alike continue to hail him as a giant among the jazz guitar elite.

John Henry Smith, Jr. was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on June 25, 1922. His father, a foundry worker, played five-string banjo on which the young man got to "plunk around a bit" whenever his dad's musical friends dropped by the Smith household. When the Depression closed down the foundries in Birmingham, the Smiths had to leave to find work. After stays in New Orleans and Chattanooga, the family finally settled in Portland, Maine. It was during this time that Smith's love for the guitar began to grow and he eventually taught himself how to play. He worked out a deal with the local Portland pawnshops: in exchange for keeping their guitars in tune, they let him hang around and play the instruments.

Smith diligently practiced and pro­gressed to the point where, by age 13, he had a number of adults studying under him. In fact, one of those adults gave Johnny his first guitar while the young man was a sopho­more in high school. Some of his early influences included Django Reinhardt, Andres Segovia, Charlie Christian and Les Paul. Smith listened to a wide spectrum of music and musicians on radio and records, but was really drawn to the freedom, spontaneity and creativity of jazz and whole­heartedly appreciated the musicianship and improvisational skill it demanded. Smith played for a short time in the Fenton Brothers dance band, then joined Uncle Lem & His Mountain Boys, a local hillbilly band. The Depression was still going strong, but young Smith was earning as much as $4.00 a night — good money at that time. He even­tually dropped out of high school to concentrate on his music.

At 18, Smith left the Mountain Boys to form his own group, the Airport Boys (an early indicator of his lifelong love of flying). The trio used the interesting instrumentation of two guitars and a stringed bass for which Smith wrote arrangements. When World War II broke out, the guitarist enlisted in the Army Air Corps, but faulty vision in one eye forced him out of flight school. Smith then joined the Air Corps band. Since his favored instrument was not suited to a military band, Smith was given a cornet and an Arban method book and told to lock himself in the latrine for two weeks and practice until he could play it. Faced with the prospect of either learning the cornet (he couldn't read music at the time) or being shipped off to mechanics school, he practiced intensely and became accomplished enough to join the band. He even advanced to first chair in the 364th Air Corps Band out of Macon, Georgia.

The fol­lowing year he was reassigned to the 8th Air Corps in Montgomery, Alabama, and was ordered to form a jazz band. Smith managed to assemble a quartet from the avail­able talent with the unusual instrumentation of two guitars, a mandolin and a bass. Glenn Miller (at that time an Air Corps major) heard Smith with his group and tried to "req­uisition" him for his own band, but the Air Corps nixed it.

After the war, Smith returned to Portland and became a staff musician at the NBC radio affiliate there. He also played guitar in the local nightclubs and trumpet in the pit band of a Portland vaudeville theater. In 1946, conductor Eugene Ormandy invited the guitarist to join the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, an offer he declined.

That same year Smith's boss at the Portland station sent a demo recording of Smith's playing to Roy Shields, the music director at NBC in New York City. Shields was sufficiently impressed and hired the guitarist as a staff musician. Smith's well-known reluctance to consider himself a jazz guitarist may have its roots in his tenure at the network, where he was often called upon to play everything from classical to polkas. This was an extremely busy time for Smith. Besides per­forming on as many as 35 radio (and later television) programs a week for NBC, he also played jobs with the New York Philharmonic (under Dimitri Mitropoulos), the Philadelphia Symphony (under Ormandy), and the NBC Symphony Orchestra (under the legendary Arturo Toscanini).

In an interview with Bob Campbell in 2001, Smith talked about his tenure with the volatile maestro: "Toscanini was a genius, but he was a tyrant with a nasty temper. He'd fly into towering rages. One time in rehearsal he jerked his beautiful gold watch from out of his vest pocket and slammed it down on the podium, sending parts spray­ing all over the stage. I walked on eggshells playing under his direction. I was very careful not to set him off."

In 1950 and '51, Smith served as guitarist for Benny Goodman's orchestra and sextet, which also included Terry Gibbs. His only high-profile recording from this period is an April 1, 1951 Goodman broadcast on WNEW which was issued on Columbia as the Benny Goodman trio plays for the Fletcher Henderson Fund to benefit the then critically ill arranger. Buck Clayton, Lou McGarity, Smith and Eddie Safranski joined the trio of Goodman, Teddy Wilson and Gene Krupa in various combinations. The gui­tarist is featured on After You've Gone, Honeysuckle Rose and One O'clock Jump.

Smith signed with Roost Records in 1952 and struck gold on his first session as a leader with his beautiful rendition of Moonlight in Vermont with Stan Getz. He talked about the piece in an interview with Edward Berger in 1990 (for the book on Teddy Reig: Reminiscing in Tempo: The Life and Times of a Jazz Hustler): "Why Moonlight in Vermont took off I really don't know. Other guitar players have told me that they were intrigued by my use of closed voicings in harmonizing the melody. On a piano, you can play a closed-voiced chord while keeping your fingers together. But on the guitar, you really have to spread out and, to my knowledge, no other guitar player had used this approach before."

Whatever the reason for its success, Moonlight in Vermont was voted Jazz Record of the Year 1952 in Down Beat. Besides garnering praise by critics and musicians, it went on to become one of the bestselling instrumental singles of all time. It was the first of many outstanding recordings that established the guitarist's tasteful trademark style of lush, complex, legato chordal voicings, interspersed with lightning-fast runs, all executed perfectly with a clear, rich sound and clean articulation.

Moonlight also began a long and successful associa­tion with producer Teddy Reig, who owned the Roost label. Smith told Bergen "My first impression of Teddy Reig was of a hard-nosed businessman. Neither one of us had any high expectations of having a big hit. One thing I will say for him: he never pushed me to change my name! With a name like John Smith, everybody I talked to about becom­ing a professional musician would advise me to adopt a more distinctive name. It got to the point that I decided to keep it just out of spite!" Reig was more than just Smith's record producer. He also acted as the guitarist's manager and arranged tours for Smith with both Stan Kenton's and Count Basic's orchestras.

During the '50s, Smith was also a frequent headliner at Manhattan's jazz clubs, especially Birdland, where he would appear up to 22 weeks a year. But he rarely recorded as a sideman. Notable exceptions are the first Jazz Studio session for Decca in October 1953 with Joe Newman, Bennie Green, Frank Foster, Paul Quinichette, Hank Jones, Eddie Jones and Kenny Clarke, a Hank Jones Trio date with Ray Brown for Clef two months later and Johnny Richards' ambitious annotations of the muses on February 22, 1955 for Legende, a subsidiary of Roost. When his quartet backed up Ruth Price, Beverly Kenney and Jeri Southern on Roost/Roulette albums, he received co-leader billing as he did on the 1962 Art Van Damme album A Perfect Match for Columbia.

In 1958, Smith's second wife died, leaving him with the responsibility of raising their four-year-old daughter, Kim. Smith realized that in order to do this properly he would have to seriously cut back on his playing and recording activities. He also felt he had to find a more conducive set­ting for raising a daughter than New York City, so he moved to Colorado Springs in February 1958 and opened his own guitar center. He flew back to Manhattan only when record dates required it.

In 1965, Teddy Reig left Roulette, the company to which he'd sold Roost in 1958. He made a production deal with Verve, which resulted in three more Johnny Smith albums in 1967—68. Smith's last commercially released recording, solo performances originally recorded in February 1976, were coupled with 1994 George Van Eps solos on a Concord Jazz CD entitled LEGENDS.

When Joe Bushkin called Smith in 1976 for a Bing Crosby tour with dates in the United States, the United Kingdom and Norway, the guitarist couldn't say no. "I had backed Bing on some orchestra dates years ago, but I wanted to get to know him. I had tremendous respect for him and we had a lot of common interests like hunting and fishing. So I said yes." Milt Hinton was the bassist and Jake Hanna the drummer. A Bushkin album 100 Years of Recorded Sound on United Artists came out of that tour.

Smith has lived happily in Colorado for the past 44 years [55 years until his death in 2013], dividing his time between operating the center, teaching, playing and enjoying life. He retired the guitar in the mid '80s. Today, he lives with Sandy, his wife of 42 years, in the same house he bought in 1958. Though retired from playing, Smith is far from forgotten. Awards and accolades continue to come his way. In 1998, the guitarist received the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, which is awarded annually by the Smithsonian Institution for distinguished cultural contributions in public service, the arts, science or history. In 1999, the JVC Jazz Festival in New York honored Smith with a gala tribute featuring a pantheon of jazz guitar greats, both veterans and rising stars.

When introduced, Smith, who made a rare trek to Manhattan, said with characteris­tic modesty: "I never considered myself a jazz player — just a guitar player who tried to supply what was missing." The beautiful recordings in this set, regardless of the labels, are a testament to the legacy of a brilliant musician.”

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