Smith, Stuff 1909–1967
Stuff Smith 1909–1967
Jazz violinist, composer, vocalist
In the era of early jazz and swing, the violin was often an instrument that carried a hint of an old-fashioned sound—a suggestion of classical music, of the high-society dance orchestra, of the gypsy café music of Europe. But Stuff Smith, considered one of the most important jazz violinists of his time, made music that told a different story: Smith’s violin was raucous, rhythmically daring, and bluesy, looking toward the future, not the past. Like most great jazz players, Smith pushed the envelope in his playing, and later in his career he adapted with little difficulty to the new musical language of bebop. Smith also sang and was the composer of several jazz standards, one of them later known as a minor anthem of recreational drug use.
Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, on August 14, 1909, but grew up in Cleveland. His father, a barber who was also an amateur boxer and musician, taught him to play the violin and encouraged him to study classical music. Smith took some music lessons but switched to jazz after hearing Louis Armstrong play the trumpet; Armstrong influenced Smith’s own style at a fundamental level. Smith’s father accepted the move and invited his son on stage to perform with him. Although he had received a scholarship to study at Johnson C. Smith University, Smith opted for a musical life instead. At age 15 he joined a touring minstrel show, the Aunt Jemima Revue.
In 1926 Smith joined the Dallas-based band of Alphonso Trent; this was one of the so-called “territory” bands that grew from the improvisatory and bluesy roots of jazz rather than moving toward the more composed and arranged style of the eastern seaboard. He stayed with Trent for four years, moving briefly to the band of Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton but returning after becoming frustrated that his violin could not be heard over the dense sound of Morton’s group. In 1930 Smith formed his own band in Buffalo, New York, where he married. The band’s trumpeter Jonah Jones became a lifelong friend of Smith’s.
During his Buffalo years Smith cast one eye on the jazz mecca of New York, and he got there in late 1935 and 1936 after he composed a scat-like novelty song called “I’se a Muggin’” (the words seem to have no specific meaning). The song caught on, and musician-impresario Dick Stabile booked Smith and his band, which now included drummer “Cozy” Cole, into the Onyx Club on 52nd Street. Rechristened Stuff Smith and His Onyx Club Boys, the band was a successful fixture of the New York scene for several years. The main attraction was Smith himself, attired in a worn-out top hat and sometimes sporting a parrot on his shoulder.
Smith and his band also recorded several sides for the Vocalion label in 1936. “I’se a Muggin’” became a moderate hit, but another recording of that year turned out to have longer-lasting resonances—“You’se a Viper” was covered by vocalist “Fats” Waller in 1943 and enjoyed renewed popularity in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s due to its drug references (“viper” was a 1930s term for a marijuana smoker). Among
Born Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith on August, 14, 1909, in Portsmouth, OH; died on September 25, 1967, in Munic, Cermany; son of a barber and musician. Education: Took some classical music lessons
Career: Left heme at age 15 to join minstrel show; joined Alphonso Trent Band, 1926; briefly played with Jetty Roll Morton band; formed own band, Buffalo, NY, 1930; moved to New York and began extended run of performances at Onyx Club, 1936; band renamed Stuff Smith and His Onyx Club Boys; disbanded band, late 1930s; took Ver Fats Waller band, 1943; signed to Verve labet; recorded album with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson, 1957; moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, 1965; composed several jazz standards and sang in addition to playing violin.
those who recorded it were folksinger Dave Van Ronk and rocker Wayne Kramer of MC5. “You’se a Viper” was preceded by other songs of the same type, but Smith’s composition was notable for the way it caught the sharp double edge of drug use in its lyrics: “Dreamed about a reefer five feet long/Mighty mezz, but not too strong/You’ll be high but not for long/If you’se a viper.”
In musical terms as well, Smith’s Onyx Club years were historically significant; he pioneered the use of the amplified violin, and, in the words of jazz historians Len Lyons and Don Perlo, he “developed a bluesy, speech-inflected style that was quite distinct from the European-influenced approaches of Swing Era violinists Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli, and Eddie South.” “I got some Venuti records and they were pretty,” Smith was quoted as saying in Jazz: The Rough Guide, “but they didn’t push me enough. I use my bow the way a horn player uses breath control and I may hit a note the way a drummer hits a cymbal!” Smith also took vocals on some of the band’s often outrageously humorous songs.
In 1938 Smith appeared in the film Swing Street, taking a hiatus from live performing. That took the momentum out of his New York career, and he dissolved his band after a series of disagreements with players and other industry figures. Smith bounced back with a trio that performed in New York (sometimes at the Onyx) and Chicago in the 1940s, and he briefly took over Fats Waller’s band after Waller’s death in 1943. A series of trio recordings was made in 1943 and 1944, but by the late 1940s Smith’s career seemed to be in decline. In the 1950s, to make things worse, Smith suffered from health problems brought on by years of heavy drinking.
Smith was still much admired by his fellow musicians, and he moved to California and continued to perform on what was said to be a centuries-old Guarneri violin. Among his fans was big-time jazz producer Norman Granz, who teamed Smith with bebop trumpeter “Dizzy” Gillespie and pianist Oscar Peterson for a recording on the Verve label in 1957. It was a measure of the originality of Smith’s style that his playing fit as well with this new generation of players as it had with the swing bands of the 1930s. Smith made several albums for Verve and continued to record until shortly before his death.
Touring widely in the 1960s, Smith, like so many other jazz musicians, found that European audiences were especially appreciative of his music. He settled in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1965 and made several recordings in Europe; one featured the Swedish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen, who, like several other young violinists, had been mightily influenced by Smith’s style. Smith fell seriously ill on tour in Paris. Doctors placed him on the critical list; marveling at his battered stomach and liver, they declared him (according to the VHl.com website) a “medical museum.” But Smith recovered and continued to perform. He died in Munich, Germany, on September 25, 1967, and was remembered, in the words of Jonah Jones (quoted in Jazz: The Rough Guide), as “the cat that took the apron-strings off the fiddle.”
Stuff Smith and His Onyx Club Boys, 1936-39, Classics.
Stuff Smith: 1939-1944, Melodie Jazz, 1997.
Stuff Smith-Dizzy Gillespie-Oscar Peterson, Verve, 1957.
Live at the Montmartre, Storyville, 1965.
The Complete Verve Stuff Smith Sessions, Mosaic, 1999.
Carr, Ian, et al., Jazz: The Rough Guide, 2nd ed., Rough Guides, 2000.
Feather, Leonard, The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Horizon Press (repr. Da Capo), 1960.
Feather, Leonard, and Ira Gitler, eds., The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford, 1999.
Lyons, Len, and Don Perlo, Jazz Portraits, William Morrow, 1989.
McRae, Barry, The Jazz Handbook, G.K. Hall, 1987.
Schuller, Günther, The Swing Era, Oxford, 1989.
All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim
"Smith, Stuff 1909–1967." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 26, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/smith-stuff-1909-1967
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