Smith, Cladys “Jabbo” 1908–1991
Cladys “Jabbo” Smith 1908–1991
Jazz trumpet player
Cladys “Jabbo” Smith was considered to be Louis Armstrong’s only serious competition during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Sometimes called the “trumpet ace of the 20s,” Smith was, according to the Village Voice, “perhaps the first swift trumpeter, a forerunner of the bebop style.” While Smith earned such illustrious admiration, he never stepped into the spotlight of fame. In their oral history, “Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya,” Nat Hentoff and Nat Shapiro quoted Milt Hinton on Smith, “Jabbo was as good as Louis [in 1930]. He was the Dizzie Gillespie of that era. He played rapid-fire passages while Louis was melodic and beautiful … He could play soft and he could play fast but he never made it.” Smith has influenced several younger trumpet players, particularly Roy Eldridge, a prominent musician who helped develop Modern Jazz. Smith’s last performance was in Berlin, where it was reported that he impressed the avant-garde trumpeter, Don Cherry. Smith also wrote over two hundred songs during his career. Smith’s friend, James Reddick, gave him the name Jabbo, who was a character in a movie by William S. Hart—Jabbo was “an ugly Indian.”
Smith was born in 1908, in Pembroke, Georgia. Smith’s father, a barber, died while he was very young. His mother played the organ in church and, for a time, cleaned Pullman cars. Unable to take care of Smith properly, she decided to put her son into the well known Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina at the age of six. Smith claimed that he cried for three months after he was left there. The orphanage was established by the Reverend D. J. Jenkins, a strict but sympathetic man who took children from unfortunate circumstances into his home. To help Jenkins’s cause, the city of Charleston gave him two hundred dollars a year and a building that used to be a hospital, and he started the orphanage. By the time Smith got there, Jenkins had already helped about 3,000 children. The institution was so well known, Smith recollected to the New Yorker, that “Mothers used the orphanage as a weapon, ‘You watch out now, or I’ll send you to Jenkins.’” The orphanage grew its own food and received left over or day old food from nearby establishments. Jenkins ran a tight household, having the children up by six a.m. for prayer and breakfast. Anyone who had done something “bad” the day before would be tied to a post and whipped. To help earn money for expenses, Jenkins organized the children into musical groups comprised of 12 children, ages eight to twelve. The “bands” would play on street
Born Gladys Smith, December 24, 1908, in Pembroke, Georgia; died Jan 16, 1991 in New York City; married Willie Mae; two children.
Career: Jazz trumpeter. Played with Charlie Johnson’s band, 1925; recorded two songs with Duke Ellington, 1927; joined James P. Johnson band, 1927; joined with Claude Hopkins, 1936–39; played at the New York World’s Fair, 1939, worked for Avis car rental agency, 1940s-1950s; European tours in the early 1970s; featured in the jazz musical, “One Mo’ Time”.
corners all around Charleston and pass the hat. They would also play at churches and some groups were sent to other nearby cities to earn money. Once Jenkins and his group went to New York and stayed there for three months.
Jenkins started the children playing instruments around the age of eight. Smith started out on the trumpet and trombone but managed to learn all the brass instruments. The children were also taught to read music and Smith became an accomplished sight reader. Children who were sent to the orphanage were expected to stay until they were twenty one years of age, but Smith started to habitually run away when he was fourteen, often joining bands in other cities and playing his trumpet. Jenkins alerted the police of all runaways and consequently Smith was always returned to the orphanage. However, in 1924 after several runaway attempts, and accidentally shooting himself in the leg, Jenkins decided that Smith was “too wild” and sent him off, with nine dollars, to Savannah where Smith’s mother lived. Instead, Smith went north, to Philadelphia where his older sister lived, and auditioned for Harry Marsh, with whom Smith played at the Waltz Dream Ballroom.
In 1925 Smith met Charlie Johnson who asked him to join his band, a group that Smith was happy to join because it “had Sidney de Paris, who was my idol. I liked the way be blew his horn and the ways he used mutes. I never acquired his style, but he influenced me,” Smith told the New Yorker. In 1927 Smith recorded a version of “Black and Tan” with Duke Ellington. Ellington wanted Smith to join his band and play at the Cotton Club, but Smith turned him down, “He offered me ninety dollars, but by that time everybody claimed I was the best in New York and I was getting a hundred and fifty a week. I said no, and he hired Freddy Jenkins,” he explained in the New Yorker. Later that year Smith joined the show “Keep Shufflin’” with Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. He also made several recordings with Johnson’s band, the Louisiana Sugar Babies. When “Keep Shufflin’” ended its run, Smith moved to Chicago where he formed the band, Rhythm Aces, and made several recordings for the Brunswick Company. The recordings that Smith made during this time reflected his virtuosity and his impressive musicianship on both trumpet and vocals. The recordings were very sophisticated, perhaps ahead of their time, which contribued to their lack of popularity.
During the 1930s, Smith moved around a lot between Milwaukee and Chicago making several side trips to Detroit. One time when Smith was in Detroit, in 1936, he ran into Claude Hopkins. He joined Hopkins’s band which took him back to New York where they played at the Roseland Ballroom. Smith left Hopkins’s band in 1939, formed a small group, and played at the New York World’s Fair. During these years, Smith reached his peak and then for various reasons retreated into obscurity. The recordings that Smith made during his peak performing years are considered classics. In the mid-1940s, Smith moved back to Milwaukee for good, where he married, played in a few groups and worked for the Avis rental car agency. Commenting on his career Smith said in the New Yorker, “I don’t know why I missed the big time, except you get tied up with those girls and things and you stay where you’re most comfortable. Also, it doesn’t help to start at the top, which was where I was by the time I was eighteen or nineteen.”
While living in Milwaukee, Smith made several attempts to stay in the music business, although not by playing his trumpet. In 1958 Smith tried to establish an organization called Jabbo’s Music Box Musicians and Entertainers Club, Inc, in an effort to help blacks create their own jobs. He was also listed as manager of the Sepia Music-Theatrical Talent Agency. Essentially, Smith faded further into obscurity until he resurfaced in the early 1960s and recorded a two-record album, Jabbo Smith: Hidden Treasure, produced by his friend, Lorraine Gordon. During the 1970s his trumpeting career was somewhat revived. He made several European tours and he was the featured artist in the 1920s era hit jazz musical, “One Mo’ Time.” The show ran for two years and played New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Houston, and San Francisco. A review of the show in the Villager declared, “The real star of the show is … Jabbo Smith. The moment he takes stage—and take it he does—we feel something of the elegance, sexiness, good humor, and authority which were the hallmarks of the black vaudeville entertainers of those years.” In 1990 Smith was nominated to the Coastal Jazz Hall of Fame. Just before he died, he learned that he was accepted. The award was accepted for Smith by Lorraine Gordon. Jabbo Smith died in New York at the age of 82.
“Take Me To The River.”
“Sleepy Time Blues.”
“Sau Sha Stommp.”
“Decatur Street Tutti.”
“Till Times Get Better.”
“Sweet and Low Blues.”
Sweet n’ Lowdown, Affinity, 1929.
Jazz Heritage: Ace of Rhythm, MCA, 1929.
Jabbo Smith 1929–1938, Challenge, 1929.
Complete 1929–1938 Sessions, EPM Musique, 1929.
Hidden Treasure, Vol 1 and Vol 2, Jazz Art, 1961.
1929–1938, Classics, 1998.
Schuller, Gunther, Early Jazz, Oxford University Press, New York, 1968.
New Yorker, December 3, 1970, p116.
The Villager, November 15, 1979.
—Christine Miner Minderovic