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Johnny Smith: Moonlight in Color

Johnny Smith in Philadelphia, 1949
Johnny Smith teaching at University of Utah in 1981

Listening to his seamless single-note flow and daring intervallic leaps alongside Stan Getz’s buttery-toned tenor sax on bristling workouts like “Tabu” and “Jaguar” or his gorgeous chordal treatment and innovative use of arpeggiated harmonics on “Moonlight in Vermont,” his popular instrumental hit from 1952, it’s hard to imagine that someone so accomplished on his instrument, so at the top of his field could ever put down his ax and walk away from it all.

But that is precisely what guitarist Johnny Smith did nearly 20 years ago.

A player of uncommon taste, harmonic sophistication and phenomenal facility who is still regarded as a “guitarist’s guitarist,” Smith, now 81 and retired, has maintained an adamant stance since the mid-’80s against picking up his guitar. “I can’t stand it,” he says on the phone from Colorado Springs in the same house where he’s lived for the last 45 years since splitting the New York City jazz scene back in 1958. “It’s nothing but frustration. You’re either in it or you’re out of it, and the in between for me is just frustration. It takes constant public performing to keep up to speed, and that means traveling all over, and I just don’t want that, especially not at this time. But to sit around and plunk for no reason is nothing but frustration. So I don’t play anymore, period. Not even by myself in my own home.”

Fortunately for guitar connoisseurs, Mosaic has compiled some of this remarkable guitarist’s finest recorded moments on The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions. This eight-CD collection spanning Smith’s prime years (1952-1964) showcases the wide diversity of his artistry while also demonstrating why he is regarded as a hero to such world-class guitarists as Pat Martino, John McLaughlin, Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Gene Bertoncini, Russell Malone, Jimmy Bruno, Howard Alden, Jack Wilkins and a host of others (many of whom came out to pay tribute to Smith at a gala 1999 JVC Jazz Festival event organized by promoter and guitar aficionado Charles Carlini). Smith’s warm, glowing tone, rapid linear lines and advanced chordal conception, sensitive dynamics and trademark pristine execution are very much in evidence on the 178 tracks that comprise this impressive Mosaic set.

Though he was a perennial poll winner in jazz magazines of the 1950s, and a top draw at legendary New York jazz clubs like Birdland and the Embers, where ardent fan Charlie Parker was frequently in the audience at his gigs, Smith never considered himself to be a jazz guitarist. And yet, anyone who hears him swinging so forcefully and improvising with such dazzling facility on several tracks from the Mosaic box set would be hard-pressed to agree. But like his friend and late colleague Chet Atkins, another mild-mannered Southern gentleman guitarist who covered a cornucopia of styles, Smith reveled in his eclecticism. “I was involved in so many different types of music over my career, so I never could consider myself a jazz guitar player. You know, the great jazz players, they’re just involved with jazz. And I think to excel in something you do have to give it full attention. Furthermore, I was never much of a jam-session guitarist. Everything I did was done with a definite outline, especially for harmony. It wasn’t my idea that I was categorized as a jazz player; that was the record company’s idea. I’m a guitar player, and I consider myself a musician who can improvise a little bit. That doesn’t make me a jazz player, like a totally dedicated jazz player like Jimmy Raney. Some people say I’m being facetious by not categorizing myself as a jazz player, but that’s how I honestly feel.”

Smith’s eclecticism is on full display on the Mosaic set. Whether it’s his chamberlike contrapuntal reading of “Lullaby of Birdland” (recorded in 1954 as an early guitar overdubbing experiment), interpretations of classical themes (Claude Debussy’s “The Maid With the Flaxen Hair,” Maurice Ravel’s “Pavane,” Scriabin’s “Prelude”), a stirring rendition of the folk melody “Shenandoah” and his brilliant adaptation of the 1958 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song (featuring the classically trained cellist Charles McCracken replacing piano in Smith’s quartet), the depth of his musicality comes through in each situation. On uptempo jazz standards like “Cherokee,” “Tea for Two,” “Love for Sale” and “‘S Wonderful” or knucklebusters like Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” and Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe,” he’s burning a clean blue streak and swinging with remarkable fluidity and drive. But it is perhaps on lush balladic offerings like “Laura,” “‘Round Midnight,” “Angel Eyes,” “Body and Soul” and “Goodbye” that the guitarist’s greatest gifts-sublime lyricism, uncommon sensitivity and an extremely refined approach to chordal melodies-come to the fore. As Norman Mongan noted in the book The History of the Guitar in Jazz: “He was the first of the modern guitarists to treat the guitar almost as a piano and thus repopularize the accompaniment function of the instrument, abandoned since [Charlie] Christian’s concern with linearity.”

Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1922, Smith was self-taught on the instrument. His father, a blue-collar foundry worker who also played five-string banjo, moved the family to Portland, Maine, when the Depression shut down the Birmingham foundries. In Maine, young Johnny pursued his early interest in guitar by making an arrangement with one of the local pawnshops. “In return for keeping their guitars in tune, they let me hang around and play some,” he recalls. With keen ears, he also picked up a lot by listening to recordings of the guitarists he most admired, including Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul and Segovia. “I spent hour after hour listening to the big bands on the radio and to these great guitarists on records-playing along, emulating, discovering. That was my music school.”

By age 13, Smith had progressed on the instrument to such a degree that he had a number of adults studying under him, even though he didn’t own a guitar of his own. “I got my first guitar during my sophomore year of high school,”

he remembers. “A man I was teaching gave me his old guitar after he bought a new one.”

Smith left high school to join a traveling band called Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys. “We dressed up like hillbillies and traveled all over Maine doing pop tunes, polkas, folk songs and so forth at country dances, square dances, fairs, schools and the like-six nights a week,” he says. At age 18, he formed his own trio, the Airport Boys (an early indicator of his lifelong love of flying), comprised of two guitars and a string bass. When World War II broke out, he quit the trio to join the Air Force. Though he was bounced out of flight school for faulty vision in one eye, he joined the 364th Air Corps Band (on trumpet), and later managed to assemble a quartet for the 8th Air Corps Band with the unusual instrumentation of two guitars, mandolin and string bass. Glenn Miller (at the time a major in the Air Corps, at the pinnacle of his musical fame and director of the American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces) heard Smith with this group and immediately tried to “requisition” the guitarist for his own band, which the Air Corps nixed.

Following the war, he worked as a staff musician at the NBC radio affiliate back in Portland, while also playing guitar in local clubs and trumpet in the pit orchestra at a local vaudeville theater. In 1946, a demo tape of Smith’s playing made its way to Roy Shields, musical director at NBC in New York City. Shields was so impressed by the guitarist’s range and ability that he hired him as a staff musician. During his tenure at the network, Smith was called upon to play everything from classical to polkas to popular to theatre scores, performing on as many as 35 radio programs a week for NBC. In that capacity, he also worked for the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the legendary and volatile conductor Arturo Toscanini. “I only worked with him one time, but it was like walking on eggshells,” he remembers. “He was like an atomic bomb when things didn’t go exactly right, so I was very, very careful not to set him off.”

Smith’s depth as a musician also landed him jobs with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. During this same time, he was juggling the day job with NBC while playing on 52nd Street until the wee hours. “I remember one time I was on this three-day stint with the New York Philharmonic,” he laughs, recalling his younger days. “I’d finish Birdland at 4 o’clock in the morning and at 9 o’clock in the morning I’d be sitting in the middle of the Philharmonic Orchestra for rehearsals.”

Following a stint with Benny Goodman’s orchestra and sextet from 1950 to ’51, Smith signed with Roost Records in 1952 and scored a major triumph with his first session as a leader with Stan Getz. “Moonlight in Vermont” went on to become one of the best-selling instrumental singles of all time and is still regarded as a jazz guitar classic. In typically self-effacing fashion, Smith says of that landmark recording, “I’ve never been able to come up with an explanation as to why that record became a hit. I guess it was because the DJs liked it. But whatever the case, I was very fortunate.”

On that famous recording, Smith introduced the concept of playing chord melodies in a smooth, even, legato fashion, an innovation that guitarists still struggle to master. As Smith told George Clinton in a 1976 Guitar Player article: “I learned the technique from observing a Hammond organ player. This was before they had reverb or anything. They had to develop a technique where, when they were changing chords, they would hold one note down to keep a tone going, like a pivot, while moving other parts. Well, by voicing these chords and using the melody on the same string you can connect these chords and make it sound legato. That’s why I did it that way, and I chose a key where I could keep most of the melody on the same string to give me common fingering.”

Following the success of “Moonlight in Vermont,” Smith became a top draw on 52nd Street. Crowds would line around the block to see him play during his regular engagements at Birdland in its heyday. “That was a frantic, happy scene,” he recalls of his Birdland days. “We shared the bill with greats like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner and Charles Mingus. It was the realization of a lifelong ambition to play jazz to appreciative crowds among the foremost jazz musicians of the era.”

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