Editor's note: Go here to read our most recent interview with Johnny Smith
An avowed and consummate homebody, Johnny Smith takes happy refuge in a life of neighborly anonymity.
Supremely unpretentious and low-key, this jazz legend has lived in the same modest house in the same nondescript, working-class neighborhood since 1958. He places a lot of value, he says, in "staying out of everybody's way" and in enjoying the company of his wife of 41 years, Sandy, his three children, John, Dave and Kim, his three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Nothing in Smith's public bearing or conversational manner hints at his status as a music legend -- that he was a featured soloist with the Count Basie and Stan Kenton bands, that Charlie Parker was one of his biggest fans, that his 1952 recording of "Moonlight in Vermont" was one of the top-selling jazz records of all time, or that he was one of the top draws at Birdland back in its storied heyday as the mecca of jazz.
We're talking here about Ivywild resident and jazz genius Johnny Smith -- the guy hailed by critics, fellow musicians and aficionados as the foremost jazz guitarist since Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian.
The meteoric parabola of Smith's career -- from a hillbilly band in Maine to the upper echelons of the ultra-sophisticated Manhattan jazz world and subsequent anonymity in jazz nowheresville, Colorado Springs -- is as improbable as it is fascinating.
Having played with, arranged for and socialized with giants Lester Young, Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Count Basie, Kenny Clarke, Arturo Toscanini, Eugene Ormandy, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Sarah Vaughn, Zoot Sims, Art Tatum, Stan Kenton and Bing Crosby, Smith is a library of insider anecdotes and celebrity reminiscence.
He was the man. He was there.
From small beginnings
Johnny Smith was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1922. Music was part of his life from his earliest years, but there was nothing to suggest future greatness.
His father was a blue-collar foundry worker and a fair-to-middlin' five-string banjo player. Whenever Dad's musical buddies dropped by to "do some music," Johnny got a chance to "plunk around a bit."
He was seven years old when the Depression shut down the Birmingham foundries and left his family destitute. In search of work, the Smiths migrated to New Orleans and then Chattanooga, Tenn., finally ending up in Portland, Maine.
"Moving from the Deep South to Maine was a wrenching culture shock," Smith remembers. "A Southern accent wasn't exactly an asset in Depression-era Maine."
Though "dirt poor," Smith nurtured his love for the guitar and taught himself to play via an arrangement he finagled with the Portland pawnshops. "In return for keeping their guitars in tune, they let me hang around and play some," he recalls.
Entirely self-taught, Smith practiced, persevered and progressed to the point where, by age 13, he had a coterie of adults studying under him -- even though he had no guitar of his own.
"I got my first guitar during my sophomore year of high school," he remembers. "A man I was teaching gave me his old guitar after he bought a new one."
Smith put his guitar to use playing six nights a week in a hillbilly band called Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys -- "the sole working band in the area at that time."
"We dressed up like hillbillies and traveled all over Maine doing pop tunes, polkas, folk songs and so forth at country dances, square dances, fairs, schools and the like," Smith said.
The Depression was still in high gear, but Smith was raking in $4 a night -- "Big money in those days," he says, still impressed and pleased these 65 years later. He dropped out of high school to concentrate on music and those nightly $4 jackpots.
Even then, though, Smith aspired higher. His ear was cocked to the siren call of jazz.
"I loved jazz for its freedom, spontaneity and creativity, and I profoundly appreciated the musicianship and improvisational skill it demands," he said. "I spent hour after hour listening to the big bands on the radio and on records -- playing along, emulating, discovering. That was my music school."
Smith ate, drank and breathed the guitar. He even dreamed it. "I'd dream chords in my sleep," he remembers. "In the morning, I'd find them on the guitar and try them out. Some were pretty interesting."
He left the Mountain Boys at age 18 to form The Airport Boys, a jazz trio consisting of two guitars and a stand-up bass for whom he fashioned arrangements in the style of his guitar heroes -- Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and Les Paul.
About this time, though, World War II thunderheads were darkening the horizon, forcing every male 18 and older to edit his life around that reality. Smith prepared for the inevitable by taking up what would become another of his lifelong passions -- flying.
Fascinated by aviation from an early age (hence the moniker, "Airport Boys"), Smith spent a large chunk of his adolescence frequenting the Portland airport, making friends with pilots, picking up pointers here and lessons there.
In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps -- the precursor to the Air Force -- hoping to contribute to the war. To his huge disappointment, however, he got 86'd from flight school because he had less than 20/20 vision in his left eye. As is so often the case with life, that disappointment, a bitter pill at the time, would prove a lucky break in the larger scheme and longer run.
Sousa to swing
With flight school nixed, Smith was re-routed into the Air Corps band to do the Sousa schtick for the war cause.
This posed a small problem, however. Military bands don't have guitars.
"They handed me a cornet and an Arban's instructional book (the Bible of trumpet playing) and ordered me to sequester myself in the latrine for two weeks of nonstop practice," Smith said.
"I was really up against it. I couldn't play the cornet and I couldn't read music, and if in two weeks I couldn't play to Air Corps band standards, it was off to mechanics school for me. I practiced like a son of a gun and managed to show enough promise that they kept me on -- which proves you can accomplish anything if you're desperate enough," he laughed.
Smith quickly advanced to first chair in the 364th Air Corps Band out of Macon, Ga., doing the patriotic oompah for bond drives, recruiting drives and various wave-the-flag fetes.
The following year he was reassigned to the 8th Air Corps in Montgomery, Ala. and ordered to assemble a jazz combo for Air Corps musical tours of the Southeast. Drawing on the best of whatever talent was available, Smith formed a quartet composed of the unlikely (for jazz) combination of two guitars, a mandolin and a stand-up bass.
Glenn Miller -- at the time a major in the Air Corps, at the pinnacle of his musical fame and director of the "American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces" -- showed up in the audience at one of Smith's performances. Miller was so impressed by Smith's virtuosity that he tried to "requisition" him for his own band -- which, it goes without saying, would have been a huge boost to Smith's musical career.
The Air Corps, though, said no, and the question was made forever moot when, not long after, Miller mysteriously disappeared. His military transport took off for Paris from a rainy, fog-enshrouded RAF airfield in England and was never seen, found or heard from again.
At war's end, Smith returned to Portland to work as a staff musician at that city's NBC radio affiliate. In addition to his "day job," he played guitar at the local nightclubs and trumpet in the pit band of a Portland vaudeville theater.
The sheer range of Smith's musical versatility is suggested by the fact that at the same time (1946) he was doing the gutbucket schtick in a vaudeville pit band, he was extended an invitation by Eugene Ormandy to be the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra guitarist.
It was also in this interim that his boss at the Portland radio station sent a demo tape of Smith's playing to Roy Shields, music director of NBC headquarters in New York. Shields was so impressed that he offered Smith a position as staff musician and arranger for NBC headquarters in New York.
Big time in the Big Apple
"Back then," Smith recalls, "radio music was entirely live, right on down to the commercials. NBC, CBS and ABC each carried a staff of over a hundred musicians who were expected to play on sight anything thrown at them -- classical, popular, jazz, polkas, theater scores, you name it. It could be nerve-wracking, but it was a dream come true to be in the company of the best musicians in the world, which is what they were."
The new job occasioned another huge change in lifestyle -- "The joint was jumpin'!" he says of post-war New York -- and an awesome increase in income -- "$278 a week!" -- but Smith persisted in his typical seven-days-a-week workaholism.
In addition to playing in as many as 35 radio (and later television) shows a week for NBC -- including Highways in Melody, The Arthur Godfrey Ford Road Show, Star Time with Benny Goodman and Frances Langsford, The Patrice Munsel Show, The Dave Garroway Show, The Ed Sullivan Show and NBC Fireside Theater -- Smith played engagements with the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos, with the Philadelphia Symphony under Ormandy and with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini, and did increasing numbers of gigs on the side in Manhattan's world-class nightclubs.
Smith says one of his highest-stress performing experiences came playing under Toscanini.
"Toscanini was a genius, but he was a tyrant with a nasty temper," Smith recalls. "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, very careful not to set him off."
The pay was right, the prestige was gratifying and Smith was in the vortex of American popular music, but jazz remained his overriding passion. After recording with Benny Goodman in 1951, he formed his own combo. One of his recruits was saxophonist Stan Getz, also an NBC staff musician.
Smith's reputation on the jazz scene took off. Hugely in demand as a sessions man and a top draw at the clubs, his band became a regular at Birdland, situated on Seventh Avenue between 52nd and 53rd streets. On nights Smith played -- he had as many as 22 week-long engagements a year at Birdland -- the line would sometimes stretch all the way around Seventh Avenue, up 52nd Street and around the corner onto Sixth Avenue.
"That was a frantic, happy scene," he recalls of his Birdland days. "We shared the bill with greats like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner and Charles Mingus. It was the realization of a lifelong ambition to play jazz to appreciative crowds among the foremost jazz musicians of the era."
A frequent visitor to Birdland on nights Smith played was Charlie Parker, generally considered the greatest saxophonist of all time. "He'd sit up front at the table closest to me and listen closely," Smith says. "Up until he self-destructed on booze and heroin -- he died at the age of 34 -- Charlie was one of the nicest, most gracious people you could ever know."
Besides Smith on guitar, the lineup of the original Johnny Smith Quintet included Stan Getz (and sometimes Zoot Sims) on sax, Sanford Gold on piano, Eddie Safranski on bass and Don Lamond on drums.
In 1952, Roost Records invited Smith to record -- a session that resulted in "Moonlight in Vermont," which became one of the best-selling jazz singles of all time and was named Jazz Record of the Year by Down Beat magazine. A half-century later, the record is still hailed by critics and musicians as one of the all-time greatest jazz recordings.
It was with "Moonlight in Vermont" that Smith established his trademark style of tasteful, clean sound and complex chordal voicing, interspersed with incredibly fast runs.
The song opens with a virtuosic six-chord sequence that has become the stuff of legend and lore in guitarist circles. In it, Smith voices chord and melody off the same string -- a technique that came to him while listening to someone play the Hammond organ.
"The hardest thing to do on the guitar," he explains, "is to play a melodic chord progression in smooth, even fashion without leaving space between chords. Then one day I noticed how an organist managed to keep a tone going between chords by holding down one of the notes of the chord while he pivoted to the next chord. I picked up on that and applied it to chord progressions on the guitar."
Smith was winner during these years of several of the Metronome and Down Beat polls that were a popular staple of '40s and '50s culture.
His best known composition is the early '60s monster hit of the Ventures, "Walk, Don't Run." Smith wrote that song for a 1955 recording session by devising a counter-melody to the chord changes of the old, treacly pop standard, "Softly, As in the Morning Sunrise."
Chet Atkins later covered the song on one of his albums, and it was Atkins' rendition that the Ventures stumbled on, tweaked in surfer/rock fashion and rode to over-the-top fame, fortune and top-10 status on the teen charts.
A few years back, the music company, BMI, awarded Smith a certificate declaring that "Walk, Don't Run" has had over 2 million known broadcast performances.
All that glitters
Though Smith was riding high and sitting tall in the saddle, the workaholic whirlwind of radio and TV work, studio work and nightclub appearances began exacting a toll.
Living the jazz life to the hilt, Smith pared down his employment with NBC from full-time staffer to freelancer and went on tour as a featured artist with Stan Kenton's band and then with Count Basie's band.
"We'd travel from gig to gig in buses," Smith recalls. "Every night was wonderful music-wise, but there's really not a whole lot that's glamorous about that lifestyle. We'd play every night -- a typical night would run from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. -- get on the bus and travel all night and next morning (and sometimes all day) to the next gig, do another show that night, get back on the bus and head for the next stop, over and over and over. There was a stretch in there where we did 71 one-nighters in a row."
As the biographies of hundreds of jazzmen attest, it's nearly impossible to live that life and have any kind of family life at the same time.
It was no different for Smith. In 1958, his second wife died, leaving him the sole caretaker of their four-year-old daughter, Kim.
"There was no way I could properly care for Kim while working 'round-the-clock like that," Smith said. "I asked a pediatrician if she'd stand a chance of growing up happy and well-adjusted under the care of a nursemaid, and he told me that chances were slim."
Despite his coveted pre-eminence at the high-rolling pinnacle of the jazz world, Smith chose family over career.
"In the end, everything came down to the fact that I loved my daughter too much to let my career put her at risk," he said. "But there were other factors, too. I loved New York musically, but I hated living there. You couldn't be a human being. It was all push and shove, and if you stopped to say 'Excuse me,' God forbid, you'd probably get hauled off to Bellevue as a fullblown loony-tune."
At that juncture, happenstances of military service and marriage had landed two of Smith's brothers and his mother in Colorado Springs. Casting his fate to the wind, Smith loaded up his car, quit New York cold turkey and headed west with Kim, despite having "hardly even heard of Colorado Springs."
He blew into town in February of 1958. Within three weeks, he'd moved into the Ivywild home that he's lived in ever since.
Ask Smith if he ever regrets how things turned out and he'll look you squarely in the eye and reply, "Not ... one ... minute," giving each word emphasis and weight.
"The greatest view I ever had of New York City," he says with audible satisfaction, "was when I emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel on the New Jersey side and watched the Manhattan skyline recede in my rearview mirror."
For a while, Smith kept his foot in the jazz door, making periodic returns to New York to record and to play Birdland.
The longer he was in Colorado Springs, though, the more he yearned to stay home -- especially after marrying his present wife, Sandy, in 1960. He increasingly limited his engagements to the club circuit (such as it is) in Denver and Colorado Springs. Locally, most of his gigs were at Eddie's Sky Room (above Long's Drug on the corner of Pikes Peak and Tejon), the Alamo Hotel and The Broadmoor.
These days, Smith is emphatically and 100 percent retired -- by choice. He hasn't performed in eight years. "I miss playing for people," he admits, "but I don't miss the music business, and above all, I don't miss the travel."
What's astonishing is that Smith, one the 20th century's greatest guitar virtuosos, no longer plays at all -- not in public, not in private for friends, not even for his own amusement alone at home. The consummate perfectionist, Smith can't bear to play unless his chops are at their virtuosic peak.
"It's discouraging to sit around and plunk," he explains. "It takes constant public performing to keep up to speed, and that means travel. To me, there's no in-between, so I don't play any more, period -- not even by myself in my own home."
Ever the homebody, Smith says he's happier these days than ever.
"I count my blessings," he says. "I have no pressures. It's the complete opposite of my younger days. I suspect you have to experience that kind of pressure firsthand before you can fully appreciate life without it.
"I've traveled a lot of the world -- New Zealand, much of Europe, Canada, Mexico, all over -- and of all the places I've been, there's no place I'd rather permanently live than right here," he said. "I have wonderful neighbors. I have all I need.
"One of the best things about Colorado Springs," he adds with a level stare and nuanced hint of a grin, "is that it locates you as far away from New York as you can be without getting too close to L.A."
Smith's performing days may be passed, but acclaim continues. His legacy grows.
In June 1998, Smith was awarded the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal, an honor bestowed annually by The Smithsonian Institute to an individual or organization that has made distinguished cultural contributions in the area of public service, the arts, science or history.
The award reads: "In grateful recognition of his contributions to American music, the Smithsonian awards the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal to Johnny Smith. His genesis of 'Walk, Don't Run,' his performance of 'Moonlight in Vermont,' his manifold accomplishments as a performer, recording artist and teacher have had a profound and pervasive influence on the role of the guitar in contemporary popular culture."
The award puts Smith in some august company. Previous Smithson recipients have included Helen Hayes, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Richard Leakey, Walter Cronkite, Jacques Cousteau, Pete Seeger, Sir Edmund Hillary, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, The Emerson String Quartet and others.
In 1999, a gala Johnny Smith Tribute was held at Hunter College in New York, where Smith was feted and paid homage by an array of old-timer greats, contemporary virtuosi and rising stars. All of them told of being profoundly influenced as youngsters by Smith's records -- much as Smith was inspired as a kid by the recordings of Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.
Critics are equally lavish with praise in assessing Smith's career.
Jazz critic Jim Ferguson writes that Smith is "recognized as one of the [guitar's] most influential players, virtually peerless in terms of his musicianship, pristine execution of single-note lines, and closely-voiced harmonies."
Norman Morgan hails Smith in The History of the Guitar in Jazz as "the first of the modern guitarists to treat the guitar almost as a piano and thus re-popularize the accompaniment function of the instrument, abandoned since Charlie Christian's concern with linearity. Johnny's impeccable artistry has become a reference point for guitarists concerned with technique and precision."
Fellow guitarists are equally laudatory. Barney Kessel praises Smith as "an extraordinary virtuoso. 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."
Longtime pal and fellow guitar great Tony Mottola met Smith when both were on staff at NBC in the late '40s.
"I'm not in Johnny Smith's league," Mottola said in a telephone interview from his New Jersey home. "Johnny has an incredible range of musicianship. You need only hear a bar or two of Johnny Smith playing, and you know instantly without the slightest doubt who it is. He's a giant -- the first truly major jazz guitarist since Charlie Christian."
The "incredible range of musicianship" to which Mattola alludes is not fanzine hyperbole. From gin joint gutbucket to symphony hall swank, Smith has seen it all, done it all, played it all.
What he cites as "possibly the most memorable moment of my career," in fact, transpired in a limousines-and-black-tie affair of highest-brow high-modernism -- a performance of Arnold Schoenberg's "Serenade for Seven Musicians" under the direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1949.
Composed in 1922 and "horrendously difficult," the piece had never been performed in public. The Museum of Modern Art scheduled a performance in honor of Shoenberg's 75th birthday.
"It was an unbelievably complicated thing," Smith recalls. "The original guitarist, a classically trained guy from a symphony orchestra, just wasn't able to cut it and they were about to scrap the whole thing. In a last-ditch effort to save it, they asked me to give it a shot.
"This was late on the Friday before the scheduled Wednesday performance," Smith recalled, "and they said there wouldn't be a rehearsal until Monday, so I went out on the town that night to blow off some steam. I made the rounds and really got myself good and juiced up and didn't make it home until 5 o'clock Saturday morning. At 6 o'clock, the phone rang. The conductor, Dimitri Mitropoulos, had called a mandatory 7 a.m. rehearsal in his hotel suite. I was dead on my feet, I was red-eyed and hung-over, and I hadn't so much as glanced at the score yet, but I crawled out of bed and dug in with everybody else."
Pulling off a near miracle, Smith mastered the piece in the allotted five days. The Wednesday night performance was flawless. The audience, which included composers flown in from all over the world for the occasion, demanded an encore performance of all seven movements.
In that incident you have Johnny Smith personified -- a musician as formidable in the Museum of Modern Art as on the bandstand in Birdland.
That assessment is reinforced in a 1976 article in Guitar Magazine, where interviewers George Clinton and Lance Bosman tell of being left open-mouthed in the wake of a private, tour-de-force demonstration by Smith of his stylistic range and technical prowess.
"After a few standards, including a marvelous arrangement of Jerome Kern's 'I'm Old Fashioned,'" they report, Smith played "Sevilla" by Isaac Abniz, "Waltz" by Manuel Ponce, Mussorgsky's "The Old Castle," and his own arrangement and transcription of Claude Debussy's "The Girl With the Flaxen Hair."
"We were amazed at the power of his inventiveness and control over his instrument," they marveled. "There seemed to be no musical idea that was impossible for him to express."
Smith downplays the praise, insisting that it's commonplace for jazz and classical musicians to be in awe of each other -- an observation that triggered yet another anecdote, this one about Vladimir Horowitz, the great classical pianist, and Art Tatum, the great jazz pianist.
"Horowitz used to come down to Birdland to hear Tatum play," Smith recalled. "He just couldn't believe his technique. He'd always sit way in the back, wearing this big black hat and trench coat -- I think it was supposed to be a disguise. To my knowledge, he never met or talked to Tatum. He'd just sit in the back with his big hat and trench coat and slip away the second the set ended. We got to calling him Lamont Cranston."
Smith and his band recorded 18 albums with Roost, Roulette, Columbia, Verve and Prestige. Asked which is his best, Smith replied: "The best one hasn't been done yet."
An out-and-out legend, Smith won't toot his own horn. As Barney Kessel puts it, "Smith never overplays or overstates."
As Smith puts it: "I try to be as low-key as possible."
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