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Willie Smith: Willie the Lion

The career of Willie “The Lion” Smith has been well documented. Never shy about stating his opinions, Smith made several records on which his spoken recollections figure as prominently as his piano tickling, and he wrote a very readable autobiography. But even longtime admirers will learn from this documentary, which tracks the Lion from his early times in Newark to the salad days of the Harlem Renaissance through the leaner postwar years to the revived interest he received later in life.

The story is told using archival footage and photos, taped interviews with Smith and people who knew him (Billy Taylor and Artie Shaw both give good accounts of themselves) and voiceover narration that leads us through the chronology of his fascinating life. There’s nothing new about the method, but it rarely has been used so well. People who know and love the music made this documentary.

Originally Published