In many ways, jazz guitar was still in its infancy back when Johnny Smith first started making a name for himself. In 1953, one of Smith's contemporaries, Barney Kessel, talked about playing with an "all-colored unit" that once featured the legendary Charlie Christian: "They kept telling me to play like a horn," the young guitarist told DownBeat's Nat Hentoff, recounting Christian's advice that, while interesting harmonies were all well and good, "swing alone is enough to get you by."
Apparently, no one got around to telling that to Johnny Smith, who says it was actually the piano that inspired his decidedly intricate arrangements on early '50s signature songs like "Moonlight in Vermont" and "Walk, Don't Run!"
"Because of the technical aspects of the instrument, they could arpeggiate up and down the keyboard," says Colorado Springs' most renowned jazz innovator. "And I figured if they could do it on piano, I should be able to do it on guitar."
Smith, who turns 87 today (June 25), grew up in Maine, spending his teen years in a hillbilly band called Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys. (He was just inducted into the state's Country Music Hall of Fame.) Over the next decade, he would start his own jazz trio, join the Army Air Corps, and end up in New York City as staff musician and arranger for the fledgling NBC television network.
Walk, don't run
"Jazz was my first love," recalls Smith, "but I was involved with all kinds of music when I was doing studio work in New York. I'd have to play everything."
Except maybe rock 'n roll. Six years after Smith wrote and recorded "Walk, Don't Run!" it became a hit single for the Ventures (whose founder, Bob Bogle, passed away just last week). The group's 1960 cover version remains one of the best-known instrumental rock songs of all time.
Unlike many of his peers, Smith had retained the copyrights to his work, and the Ventures intervention couldn't have come at a better time: "It was sort of a typical rock song, but I was grateful that they recorded it, and it's been very good to me," says Smith. "As a matter of fact, when the Ventures first hit, I'd lost the tip of my ring finger on the left hand. I was out of commission for a year, and their hit kind of saved my neck."
Gene Bertoncini, a guitarist the New York Times recently described as revered but not particularly famous, recalls being inspired by Smith's harmonic structures, chord clusters and classically inspired arrangements. Bertoncini will fly into town this weekend to join three other guitarists for a tribute show honoring Smith and his music.
"The whole idea of the guitar as a solo instrument has meant everything to me, and Johnny sure was the best at that," says Bertoncini, who took lessons from Smith as a teenager. "Even when he was playing just single lines and linear stuff, it was just so beautiful. The warmth, clarity and purity of the sound was something that stuck with me. I was so inspired, and I'm such a lucky guy to have him as an example, both as a human being and as a musician."
Escape from New York
Outside his studio work, Smith was a major club attraction in New York. In fact, he and Charlie Parker would come out to hear each other play when they weren't sharing bills at Birdland.
"He was just an incredible player. No one could touch him," says Smith of the bebop legend who wouldn't live to see his 35th birthday. "He had a tough life and was on all kinds of bad stuff — narcotics, you know, heroin. But when he was off of the bad stuff, he was very likeable and a perfect gentleman."
As is Smith, whom local jazz advocate Lenny Mazel describes as "the most modest, humble, shy person you'd ever want to meet."
Is Smith his own worst critic?
"Well, I'm honest with myself," he says. "I did a couple of things I wasn't proud of ... Most of my dislikes had to do with my playing."
The rest had to do with New York City, which Smith left behind in 1958.
"My wife in New York died, and I had a 5-year-old daughter," Smith says. "I was working day and night, with no one to take care of her except for people hired off the street. And she meant more to me than my whole career in music, so I left New York."
He came to Colorado Springs to be with relatives in a more relaxed environment, and went on to open a local music store, teach lessons, and design guitars that today fetch up to $10,000. He's never regretted leaving the music industry, and still looks back on his career with characteristic modesty.
When asked about the stylistic influence of artists like Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Les Paul, he laughs: "Oh, I think I stole from everybody."
Except maybe the Ventures?
"Except the Ventures."
"Walk, Don't Run!" by Johnny Smith
"Walk, Don't Run!" by the Ventures