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.