Sam Smith started the first jazz band his Quaker school ever had. At Harvard he played with various bands, once for 12 hours straight at two locales. He played drums with bands up until 1980 when he switched to stride piano. He had his own band until the mid-1990s and also played with the New Sunshine Jazz Band, Hill City Jazz Band, the Not So Modern Jazz Band and the Phoenix Jazz Band.Thanks to Bob Walter on trumpet (above), and clarinetists including Jimmy Hamilton, Coleman Hankins (below) and Don Rouse (above), plus the driving bass of Paul Hettich – we got along much of the time without a drummer (although not on the tracks here). Having two horns gave us a bigger sound and the lack of percussion got us gigs in places where drums would have been too much.
What does this all have to do with news and politics? Only this, as I wrote in one of my books:
“The essence of jazz is the same as that of democracy: the greatest amount of individual freedom consistent with a healthy community. Each musician is allowed extraordinary liberty during a solo and then is expected to conscientiously back up the other musicians in turn. The two most exciting moments in jazz are during flights of individual virtuosity and when the entire musical group seems to become one. The genius of jazz (and democracy) is that the same people are willing and able to do both.”
The recording of the Phoenix Jazz Band was made at the Central Ohio Jazz Festival in 1990 and features George James on saxophone on ‘Apex Blues’, band leader Bob Walter on trumpet, Coleman Hankins on clarinet and your editor on piano, among others. The sound effects come from the audience.
George James was 84 years old at the time and had to be helped to the stage. Once he got there it was a different story as is apparent on the cut. He had sixty recordings behind him and had been a regular with both Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. The tune we played with him was the Apex Blues written by Jimmy Noone in honor of the second floor Apex Club on the south side of Chicago where Noone had an orchestra in the 1920s. The club was raided and closed in 1930 by federal agents enforcing prohibition. One of those who played with Noone was Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. Another was George James, who played in Noone’s group before going on the road with Louis Armstrong.
We played just two tunes with James – the other was Misty – but for a stride piano player like myself to go even eight bars with one of Fats Waller’s sidemen is about as close to heaven as one can reasonably expect to get. And who would have guessed it would happen in Columbus Ohio? But, then, as Fats used to say, “One never knows, do one?”
Sam Smith’s last drum gig was a party for Walter Mondale after the inauguration of Ronald Reagan. Sam offered to let Mondale sit in but he said,” Thanks but I’m in enough trouble already.” After this gig, Sam switched to stride piano.
Sam as a high school drummer and leader of the Six Saints