Stuff Smith Biography

Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith, 14 August 1909, Portsmouth, Ohio, USA, d. 25 September 1967, Munich, Germany. Smith began playing violin as a child; he had some formal tuition but left home at the age of 15 to make his way as a professional musician. In 1926, he became a member of the popular Alphonso Trent band, where he remained, with side trips to other bands, for four years. In 1930, he settled in Buffalo, where he formed his own group, and in 1936 he went to New York for a long and highly successful residency at the Onyx Club. This band, which included Jonah Jones and William ‘Cozy’ Cole, established Smith’s reputation as a forceful, hard-swinging jazzman with an anarchic sense of humour (he performed wearing a battered top hat and with a stuffed parrot on his shoulder). Offstage he was an aggressive and disorganized individual, and in the late 30s he was forced to disband because of trouble with his sidemen, bookers, club owners and the union. Following Fats Waller’s death in 1943, Smith took over the band but this too was a short-lived affair.

By the late 40s Smith’s career was in decline, but a series of recordings for Norman Granz in the late 50s, in which he was teamed, improbably but successfully, with Dizzy Gillespie, brought him back into the spotlight. He began to tour, especially in Europe where he was extremely popular, settled in Denmark and continued to record. Perhaps the most exciting and dynamic of all the jazz fiddlers, Smith concentrated on swinging, attacking his instrument with wild fervour and producing a rough-edged, almost violent sound. His performance of ‘Bugle Call Rag’ at a New York Town Hall concert in 1945 vividly demonstrates his all-stops-out approach to jazz and is a remarkable bravura display. Despite his swing era roots, Smith’s recordings with Gillespie are filled with interesting explorations and he never seems ill at ease.

A hard-drinker, Smith’s later years were beset by hospitalizations, during which parts of his stomach and liver were removed. A visit to a Paris hospital resulted in his being declared a ‘medical museum’ and he was placed on the critical list, but within a few days he was back on the concert platform.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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