Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Stuff Smith: 1909-1967

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

“Smith was comparatively more adventurous harmonically and in his playing which favored a rough, vibrato-less tone. In the 1930’s he was the first to amplify his violin which enabled him to project his sound over large ensembles. This became standard practice, allowing violinists to perform in a wide variety of Jazz setting.”  
- Christopher Washburne, in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz

The violin, which is only occasionally heard in Jazz circles today, had a fairly prominent place in the early history of the music when a number of groups used it as a lead voice along with trumpet and clarinet. Violin and piano duos were a common format in early Jazz, which was partly a reflection of how popular these instruments were in early 20th century family life in America.

The instrument was all but gone when Jazz evolved from the Swing to the Modern era as very few violinists were able to make the transition from swing-to-bop.

Born in 1909, Hezekiah Leroy Gordon “Stuff” Smith was by all accounts good enough on the instrument to tour with Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers before his twentieth birthday. Smith moved to New York in 1936, where he led a quintet at the Onyx club that included Jonah Jones and Cozy Cole; here he began using an amplified violin. Smith was chosen to lead Fats Waller's band after the pianist's death in 1943.

Smith was an innovative musician. He played violin in a raucous style and with a sense of swing that was of unequaled intensity. Harmonically his work was extremely adventurous, and he evolved radical techniques to accommodate his wildly inventive ideas. Wide vibrato, hoarse tone, expressive intonation, and rhythmic creativity are all hallmarks of his style. Dizzy Gillespie has cited Smith as a profound influence upon his playing.

A lull in his career was followed by a series of excellent recordings for Norman Granz in 1957. He began touring more extensively in the 1960s, and in 1965 he settled in Copenhagen, where he remained quite popular until his death.”

Thank goodness for Dizzy Gillespie and Norman Granz as they enabled me to finally catch up to Stuff Smith and his music via the double CD on Verve entitled Stuff Smith - Dizzy Gillespie - Oscar Peterson [314 521 676-2 which combines Stuff’s three Verve LP’s Have Violin, Will Swing , Stuff Smith, and Dizzy Gillespie-Stuff Smith].

It would appear that Norman had a penchant for such actions and all of us in the Jazz world are many times indebted to him for all of the music that he presented and preserved for Jazz annals and Jazz aficionados. As Richard Cook and Brian Morton point out in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6 Ed. point out:“Verve have, of course, always had a gift for picking up artists relatively late in their career and injecting new life into them. The sessions with Diz and Oscar are beautifully recorded, if not sublimely musical, and one values the record - a generously filled two-CD set….”  

Cook and Morton go on to say:

“Initially influenced by Joe Venuti, Smith devised a style based on heavy bow-weight, with sharply percussive semiquaver runs up towards the top end of his range. His facility and ease … is jaw-dropping. Like many 1920’s players, Smith found himself overtaken by the swing era and re-emerged as a recording and concert artist only after the war, when his upfront style and comic stage persona attracted renewed attention. Even so, he had a thriving club career in the meantime, most famously at the Onyx Club on 5ind Street, and managed to hold his ground while the bebop revolution, which he either anticipated, or was left untouched by, depending on your point of view, went on around him.”

There isn't much information about Stuff Smith in the Jazz canon, but thankfully, Harry Pekar did provide some elaboration on Smith and his approach to Jazz violin in the following excerpts from his insert notes to Stuff Smith - Dizzy Gillespie - Oscar Peterson [314 521 676-2]:

“The violin is one of the easiest instruments to play fast, and many jazz violinists take advantage of this to improvise many-noted solos which, at worst, are overly decorative. Stuff Smith can't be accused of getting too flowery, however; a very original player, he is less indebted to classical violin technique than were his contemporaries Stephane Grappelli, Eddie South, and Joe Venuti. His style seems derived from horn players as much as from any other instrumentalists.
Smith confirms this in Nat Hentoff's liner notes to Have Violin Will Swing, the first of three LPs reissued on this album:

‘I've always visualized myself playing trumpet, tenor, or clarinet. Also, I don't use the full bow — only the end, about six inches, maybe eight inches at times. The reason for that is you can slur more easily, the way a horn would, and you can get more warmth. Using the end of the bow, moreover, causes you to bow the way you breathe. I mean, it's my equivalent of a horn player's breath.Then, If I want to make a staccato accent, I bring the bow up, but almost as if I were hitting a cymbal.’

Louis Armstrong's recording of "Savoy Blues" has been cited as impressing Smith so much that it inspired him to become a jazz musician. And Smith has confirmed that in his comments on the people who marked his style:

‘My major influence was Louis Armstrong. I first heard him in the mid-Twenties and that was the way I wanted to play. As for violinists, I liked Joe Venuti very much, the way he phrased, his speed, his technique. Other people I admired were Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey, and Red Nichols. Red for the way he slurred and the quality of his notes, like Bix. As it happened, I didn't get to hear Bix too much, so it was Red's work I knew better. There were also Frankie Trumbauer — the way
he slurred too — and Tommy Dorsey for his tone and the way he delivered a song.

‘Tommy could play with just straight tone and I prefer that. I don't use too much vibrato; you can't afford to in jazz. Your thoughts and your notes come too fast when you play jazz. Accordingly, what you have to work for is what I call a balanced form of melody. Now you can't balance well if you have a straight tone followed by one with vibrato, etc., so the best way, as I hear it, is to play straight tone all the way.’

Smith swings very hard, playing relatively spare, infectious lines and phrases, the kind you tend to memorize and maybe find yourself replaying in your mind a few hours later. There's nothing schmaltzy about his work. His tone is hard and penetrating; in fact, he pioneered the use of amplified violin.

Born in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1909, Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith studied violin with his father and began playing professionally at fifteen. He worked with Alphonse Trent's band in Texas from 1926 to 1929, and in the early Thirties Stuff led his own group in the Buffalo, New York area.

Smith's sextet, including Jonah Jones (one of the most advanced swing trumpeters of the time), got a gig at the Onyx Club in New York in 1935. He gained a group of enthusiastic followers who were probably as attracted to his extroverted, humorous vocals as his violin playing.

In 1936 Smith made his first recordings, and one, "I'm a-Muggin'", became a hit. He continued to play well during the Forties and Fifties, but his music, which had anticipated Louis Jordan's, gradually went out of fashion. By the mid-Fifties Stuff was virtually a forgotten man. (Though it should be pointed out that in 1953 or '54 he appeared on the earliest Sun Ra recording thus far unearthed, "Deep Purple", available on the Evidence CD Sound Sun Pleasure.

So it is fortunate that Norman Granz remembered Smith and supervised some 1957 sessions showcasing him.

After the release of these IPs, a revival of interest took place in Smith's work. He recorded again for Verve and also for 20th-century Fox and Epic, and he made successful club appearances in New York and California. In 1965 he left for Europe, where he toured several nations, continuing to play well, and made LPs with other violinists, including Svend Asmussen, Stephane Grappelli, and Jean-Luc Ponty. Stuff settled in Copenhagen in 1965 and died in Munich in 1967. …

In terms of overall appeal, however, the 1957 material on this CD matches anything Stuff ever cut. He's impressive, Gillespie's inspired, and [Wynton] Kelly, [Carl] Perkins, and [Oscar] Peterson display about as much sensitivity and subtlety as they have on record. If you want to hear some Stuff, here's a good place to start.”

For our video tribute to Stuff we’ve chosen his performance of Ja-Da from the Verve reissue on which he is joined by Carl Perkins on piano, Curtis Counce on bass and Frank Butler on drums.

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