Betty Smith: Saxophonist and singer hailed for her improvisational panache

It was rare to find a woman jazz musician in the Fifties. Even more rare to find one who played hotter jazz than her colleagues. The tenor saxophonist Betty Smith was one such.

"There was a trombone tradition in my family," she said. "They were all trombonists except me. I would have been one too, but my arms were too short."

Wartime austerity still lingered in 1950. The uniforms of the musicians in trumpeter Freddy Randall's Dixieland/Chicago-styled band looked more appropriate to attendants at a caravan park than to a leading jazz band. Certainly they did Betty Smith no favours, and when we first saw her on stage she looked chunky and without glamour. And then she played...

Randall's band toured the well-worn circuit of one-nighters covered by trad and Dixieland bands around Britain. The audiences felt sentimental about New Orleans jazz and it was a time for mawkish, tear-stained clarinet rather than efficient and swinging saxophone. In fact, Betty's was virtually the only tenor sax ever seen on the circuit. With the exception of those led by Humphrey Lyttelton and Chris Barber, the bands were mainly technically inept. But in Randall's band the standards were much higher and while he was a trumpet virtuoso Betty Smith swung and improvised with all the panache of her American counterparts Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller.

Unlike the callow youths of the trad bands, Betty Smith had a professional career behind her before she turned to small-group jazz. She'd begun playing the alto sax when she was nine in Archie's Juveniles and began concentrating on jazz in her early teens.

In 1947 she had toured the Middle East with pianist Billy Penrose and then joined Ivy Benson's evening-gown clad Girls' Band. She had flown to Germany to play for officials off duty from the Nuremberg trials and in 1948, at the very beginning of the Berlin Airlift, she was flown into the city with Rudy Starita's All Girls Band to play for the troops.

"I'm still owed 40 quid for that gig," she sniffed.

In 1950 she joined Randall's band and a few years later went to the States with the band in exchange for Louis Armstrong's visit to Britain. Randall became ill soon after and broke upthe band in 1957. Betty Smith then formed her own quintet, which included her husband, the bassist Jack Peberdy, and another jazz virtuoso, the pianist Brian Lemon.

Her trip to the States had whet her appetite and she returned with the quintet, touring on the same programme as Bill Haley's Comets. Her record of "Bewitched" reached the American hit parade. She proved skilled at finding work and the quintet played summer seasons in Guernsey and other places. The group had a residency on the liner Franconia and she played and sang – for she was a good vocalist – with the Ted Heath Orchestra. She did a lot of radio and television work and for a while had her own radio programme on Radio Luxembourg.

The high quality of her playing brought her into the orbit of another trumpet virtuoso, Kenny Baker, and they worked together often over the rest of her career. When Baker and two more ex-Ted Heath musicians, trombonist Don Lusher and drummer Jack Parnell, formed a sextet called the Best of British Jazz in the early 1970s she was a founder-member and remained the only saxophone player in the band until she became ill in 1985.

Baker waited until 1992 to see whether she would recover; when she did not he reformed the band. In the 1980s she appeared with Eggy Ley's Hotshots and at several jazz festivals, but her illness persisted and herhusband Jack looked after her for the rest of her days. She continued to sing and play the piano until a week before her death.

Steve Voce

Betty Smith, tenor saxophonist, vocalist, bandleader: born Sileby, Leicestershire 6 July 1929; married 1950 Jack Peberdy; died Kirby Muxloe, Leicestershire 21 January 2011.

Sport
Premier League Live
footballLIVE Follow all the Premier League action as it happens
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
James Argent from Towie is missing, police say
peopleTV star had been reported missing
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone