Keith Smith: Hard-headed trumpeter
Saturday 09 February 2008
Keith Smith was a powerful trumpeter, an astute businessman and a deeply unattractive man. He was better known for his achievements abroad than he was in Britain. They included at one time running a fish and chip shop in New Orleans – an innovation in the city – until it was suggested to him by the mob that he move on. A determined man who could think what was to other English musicians the unthinkable, Smith took his trumpet to the States and worked comfortably as the leader of musicians who in Britain were regarded as legends.
His accomplished playing was broadly based on that of Louis Armstrong, but he had begun by moulding himself on the unsophisticated New Orleans style of Kid Howard and progressed eventually to take in the maverick and comparatively complex ideas of another New Orleanian, Red Allen.
Smith began playing in amateur jazz bands around London in the late Fifties. His first band was the Powder Mill Jazz Band in 1957 and for the next three years he worked in bands with strange names – the San Jacinto Jazz Band, the New Teao Brass Band and the Fron-Zi-Me Jazz Band. He turned professional with a band led by Mickey Ashman in 1960 and later that year co-led the Climax Jazz Band. His first work abroad was with the trombonist Mac Duncan's band in Germany in 1961 and, later that year, he performed back home with Bobby Mickleburgh's Confederates. Returning from his first trip to New Orleans, he formed his own Climax Jazz Band in 1962, recording with it the next year.
In the spring of 1964 he toured the United States in an exchange for the cornet player Wild Bill Davison, who was to work in the UK with the Alex Welsh band. "Needless to say I had a ball", he recalled:
I worked and recorded with George Lewis's Band in New Orleans and when appearing in Jimmy Ryan's in New York City the great drummer Zutty Singleton befriended me and took me and my wife to meet my all-time hero Louis Armstrong, who was appearing in concert on Long Island.
Imbued with the legends of New Orleans, Smith decided to settle there and it was typical of him that, even in one of the most segregated cities in the US, he managed to join the black musicians' union thus enabling him to play in carnivals, street parades, and funerals with the Eureka and Olympia Brass Bands. He started a fish and chip business in New Orleans which was literally too successful and resulted in the local Mafia giving him the choice of 24 hours to get out of town or to wear a cement suit in the Mississippi. Smith left for California, where he stayed for a few months before moving to New York.
While there Smith briefly met Davison who had by now returned to New York and later suggested on the strength of this meeting that Wild Bill "might have been a schizophrenic, or mentally disturbed" – not a description that anyone who knew the unusually forthright Davison would have recognised.
That destructive letter from Smith on Davison's character that was published in Jazz Journal International in May 2006 chimed with an earlier correspondence from him to a broadcasting company. Smith had appeared on a programme where the amiable presenter had made a casual remark that Smith was able to twist to suggest that it was defamatory. His letter threatening to sue caused panic. Smith offered not to sue if the company agreed to run a lengthy feature on him followed by a half hour broadcast by his band. The company acquiesced.
Smith was a man who gained a good proportion of his many successes by being hard. These included touring Europe and Canada in 1966 with Keith Smith's American All Stars, a band made up of New Orleans greats including Pops Foster and Jimmy Archey and in 1978 with a band that he led including the Americans Vic Dickenson, Major Holley, Johnny Mince and Oliver Jackson; they played at the Nice Jazz Festival that year.
From 1972 to 1975 Smith lived in Denmark, where he worked with Papa Bue's Viking Jazz Band, touring with the band in Europe and the Far East. In 1975, returned to Britain, he formed the band Hefty Jazz and also began a record company of the same name. Hefty Jazz the band, which was co-led by the clarinettist Ian Wheeler before Smith took over completely in 1969, demonstrated Smith's ability to attract great musicians to him for it included, from time to time, the trombonist George Chisholm, the pianist Mick Pyne as well as Americans who toured as sidemen with the band, including Nat Pierce, Johnny Mince, Peanuts Hucko, Barrett Deems and Johnny Guarnieri. On occasion some of the Americans felt that Smith belittled them on stage to the audience, in favour of his own perhaps lesser talent.
In 1981 Smith led the Louis Armstrong All Stars using five members of Armstrong's own band for 100 concerts in Europe, and in 1984 he produced the show "Stardust Road", a celebration of Hoagy Carmichael's music devised by Smith that starred Georgie Fame. This was followed by yet another of the programmes of Smith's devising "A Hundred Years of Dixieland Jazz", co-starring George Chisholm. Hefty Jazz visited America in 1985 and played at Eddie Condon's in New York, a singular honour for a British band.
"The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong" show reformed several times with different musicians and, although there were no Americans involved, one of his most illustrious ventures was the 1991 "Keith Smith Presents Let's Do It", a programme of the songs of Cole Porter played by Hefty Jazz and sung by the blues vocalist Paul Jones and by Elaine Delmar, a world-class English singer.
There was a similar "Tribute to George Gershwin" tour and in 1994 the American ex-Armstrong clarinettist Joe Muranyi joined Smith for the first time for that year's Armstrong tribute. Another of Smith's shows, "From Basin Street to Broadway", drew sell-out audiences. From 2000 he continued to tour internationally, both with his band, and as a solo artiste. Apart from Britain he played in Portugal, Sweden, Italy, the US, Hungary and Switzerland.
Smith disdained the music that came with and after the Charlie Parker revolution. "I'm not interested in anything experimental," he said. "I'm only interested in music that works. I'd rather have a reliable Mini than an Aston Martin that breaks down all the time."
Keith John Smith, trumpeter, bandleader and impresario: born Isleworth, Middlesex 19 March 1940; married; died London 4 January 2008.
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