Sound Signatures

 

 

 

Johnny Smith

Forever Young

Homage To A Forgotten Innovator

 

By Chip Stern

 

 

You’ve probably heard of the guitar bearing his name. 

But what of the man’s profound artistry and humanity? 

Ladies and gentleman, the Segovia of Jazz Guitar, Johnny Smith.

 

 

In talking over the phone with Mister Johnny Smith, time and again I’m taken aback by this legendary guitarist’s self-effacing humor and earnest humility, as he patiently indulges my queries, and strains to retrace the forgotten footsteps of the jazz limelight from the quietude of his Colorado Springs home.  It’s been 47 years since Johnny experienced the blessed relief of watching the spires of the New York City skyline recede through the rear-view mirror of his car, as he and his four year old daughter began their unsentimental journey west.  Those memories have faded, like autumn leaves in late November, yet here comes another pilgrim putting this soft-spoken octogenarian through an exercise in nostalgia. 

 

However, when I apologize for being such an obsessive nudge, Johnny will hear nothing of it, and pooh-poohs my concerns with characteristic modesty.  “Oh, no, don’t be sorry—I’m flattered that you have this interest.”   But then it’s Johnny’s turn to apologize.  “Listen, I have a very embarrassing question.  Could you give me the spelling of your name again, please?  Chip…right, right.  You see,” he explains in his wry, phlegmatic way, “names go right through me.  I’d forget my own—if it wasn’t John Smith.”

 

                                                                                                              © Chuck Stewart

 

The Right Stuff—John Henry Smith

Swinging That There Hammer In The Late 1950s

“The Standard We All Aspire To…”

 

Truth be told, John Henry Smith isn’t the only one to have grown forgetful.

 

But for those who remember, his stature remains heroic, not unlike that of another post-WWII icon, Chuck Yeager—the first pilot to break the sound barrier.  Smith himself had a dual passion for flight and music, and only his less than perfect eyesight precluded his full-time aspirations as a pilot.  As a result, while Chuck was pushing the envelope to Mach Two and beyond, Johnny raised the bar for musicality on the amplified arch top guitar well into the stratosphere as staff guitarist at NBC from 1946-1958, on a series of influential combo recordings for the Roost label, and as a live fixture at Birdland for upwards of twenty-two weeks a year. 

 

The Right Stuff—Chuck Yeager

Like Johnny Smith, He Too Broke The Sound Barrier

 

Johnny Smith’s playing is emblematic of everything I cherish in jazz guitar.  At his peak, Smith’s flawless touch, gorgeous sound, length and breadth of melodic line, classical articulation and tremendous rhythmic drive conferred a swooping, airborne quality to his improvisations—and in terms of sheer technical command, no jazz guitarist this side of Django Reinhardt (an enormous influence) ever demonstrated such flash, fluency and finesse with a pick.  In many ways his lush chord voicings and signature harmonic conception anticipated the free form breakthroughs of Bill Evans.  And like fellow jazz giants Hank Jones, Clark Terry, Johnny Hodges and Jo Jones, Johnny Smith’s purity of tone and depth of nuance were such that one carefully sculpted note often sufficed for dozens, making it seem as though the instrument offered no physical impediments whatsoever—an illusion to be sure, but a grand one at that.  Much as Duke Ellington once observed of Django Reinhardt, it can be said of Johnny Smith that it’s impossible for him to play a superfluous note or anything that isn’t beautiful and in good taste.

 

Gypsy Genius, Django Reinhart

An Enduring Source Of Inspiration

 

Still, for far too many guitarists—yet to be born in 1967 when Johnny recorded a superb pair of combo sessions for the Verve label (Johnny Smith and Johnny Smith’s Kaleidoscope, with the dream team of Hank Jones, George Duvivier and Don Lamond)—the name Johnny Smith is shrouded in obscurity, save for some vague glint of recognition associated with the Gibson, Heritage and Guild instruments that bear his name.  In part the reigning king of jazz guitarists fostered his own obscurity by abdicating his crown upon the death of his second wife—withdrawing from the bright lights of Broadway back in 1958 to settle in Colorado Springs and raise his daughter.  There Johnny opened a music store, taught music and guitar, and worked as a pilot and flight instructor, returning East only intermittently thereafter for the odd recording session, club date or tour—his last big one with Bing Crosby in 1976.  Then in the 1980s he stopped performing altogether, which served only to enhance his legendary, elusive stature among contemporary guitarists. 

 

Out of sight, out of mind, a situation exacerbated by the tenuous status of his Roost recordings, which were in limbo for decades, with the exception of two Blue Note/Roulette single-CD compilations: one gathers together all of the pre-LP era singles which comprise his legendary 1952-53 quintet sessions with the likes of Stan Getz (Moonlight In Vermont); then there are a pair of 1960-61 quartet sessions, including one gem featuring Smith’s first collaboration with Hank Jones and George Duvivier, aided and abetted by drummer Ed Shaughnessy (The Sound Of The Johnny Smith Guitar). 

 

There are also the aforementioned 1967 Verve sessions, only available as imports (and simply begging for a comprehensive hybrid SACD/CD release).  Johnny’s final 1968 Verve session, Phase II (also featuring Jones and Duvivier, with drummer Derryl Goes) was an attempt to tap into the pop market a la the Creed Taylor/Wes Montgomery collaborations, with a more “contemporary” selection of tunes—it was never released on CD.  Finally, there’s a lovely mid-‘70s acoustic recital that takes up half of the Concord release, Legends: Solo Guitar Performances (with the late seven-string innovator, George Van Epps).  Save for this measly output, the greatness of John Henry Smith would be lost to most of us.   Nevertheless, for those who’ve been touched by his genius, the legend endures. 

 

“Johnny Smith set the standard for excellence in guitar playing,” asserts the remarkable Jimmy Bruno, adding that, “Johnny remains the standard we all aspire to, and there’s no one, even among today’s leading innovators, who has approached his levels of virtuosity…and musicality.” 

 

Johnny Smith and Jimmy Bruno

 

“When I was a child,” fellow Philadelphia native Pat Martino chimes in, “I thought he understood everything there was to know about music—I still feel that way.” 

 

“As far as I’m concerned, no one in the world plays the guitar better than he,” the late Barney Kessel often exulted when that valiantly swinging guitarist conducted interviews.  “They might play it differently, but nobody plays better. Johnny could easily overplay because he’s got chops unlimited, but his musical taste would not allow him to make an overstatement.  As a result, he makes beautiful music.”

 

“He has such an awesome command of the instrument,” enthuses Bill Frisell, himself a Colorado native, who studied with Smith for a semester during his collegiate days.  “Johnny was really committed to breaking down all the limitations of the guitar.  He was among the first people I ever heard to pursue a pianistic approach to the guitar, and he really expanded the orchestral possibilities of the instrument with his elevated levels of technical clarity, tone, touch, harmonic richness...everything! ” 

 

Pat Martino

© Chip Stern

 

“What most people don’t realize,” jazz master Jack Wilkins proclaims with profound conviction (and affection), “is that the modern legato style of chord melody playing—the harmonies, the phrasing, the voice-leading—all derive from Johnny Smith’s innovations.  Now it’s not as if there weren’t exceptional chord-melody players before Johnny, people like Eddie Lang, Dick McDonough, Carl Kress and George Van Epps.  But in a sense, Johnny Smith codified everything that came before him, and took it to another, much higher level.   And in addition to his use of closed chord voicings on the guitar—which are quite easy on the piano but involve really difficult stretches on the guitar—he also made inventive use of drop tunings, open strings, thirds, contrary motion, three-octave arpeggios...you name it.  He’s the man.” 

 

However, were you to query Johnny about all this, another answer would be forthcoming.  “I never really considered myself a jazz guitarist,” Smith proclaims firmly.  “Someone else categorized me.  I was always off on different tangents, and that was my experience over the years—I loved all kinds of music.  I was able to ad-lib against chord changes a bit, but there’s still a world of difference between that and being a true jazz player, like the people I consider true jazz masters—where that was their total concentration.  And it was not my total concentration.  I never really had a jazz vocabulary on the same level as guys like Jack Wilkins, Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Chuck Wayne, Jimmy Raney or Tal Farlow.  I just played like I thought the song should be played.  The most important thing, first off, was establishing a good bass line.  That and the melody were always the two main priorities with me—the melody and a good bass line.  Of course I was doing the chord thing, which I guess turned out to be the difference—not that that means anything.  To get those closed voicings I had to really stretch out, and I was able to connect the chords so that it sounded legato.”   

 

Be that as it may, Johnny could play that guitar just like ringing a bell, and now, thanks to the archival largesse and profound artistic commitment of our friends at Mosaic Records we can bear witness to the Dead Sea Scrolls of Johnny Smith’s primacy, in the form of The Complete Roost Johnny Smith Small Group Sessions.  This magnificent 8-CD box set is a testament both to Johnny Smith’s overwhelming technical command and his indomitable musicality, and should go a long way towards cementing his stature amongst other giants of 20th century guitar—including his own inspirations, Andres Segovia, Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian—let alone such jazz innovators as Lester Young and Charlie Parker.  And while Johnny would never co-sign such comparisons, the mere mention of these jazz icons draws forth a wellspring of recollection.

 

“Well I appreciate you saying that.  Charlie Parker was a very good friend of mine…when he was on this planet.  When he was on the other stuff, nobody was his friend.  But otherwise he was a very, very warm, down to earth, intelligent person; a very intelligent man, oh gosh yes.  And during the 1950s I did a tour of about fifty one-nighters with this fantastic Basie band.  Lester Young was there along with a whole bunch of great people, like Sarah Vaughan and Joe Williams.  I wrote a couple of arrangements for the band, and I did a couple of solo spots with them—it was a very unique experience.  And so, yes, I deeply appreciated what Charlie Parker and Lester Young did, but I never tried to emulate them.  Charlie Christian came up to Portland, Maine before WWII with a Benny Goodman band.  Charlie went to a nightclub afterwards, and I was privileged to meet him and hear him play.  And when Django was in this country, I was privileged to chauffer him around.  He was playing at the Café Society uptown, and I’d pick him up and we’d go hear Les Paul at the Paramount Theater and then I’d take him back to the Café Society, so I was privileged to get to know him and hear him play.  And of course I worshipped him when I was a kid and those records first came out on 78s.  I got about three plays out of them on this old Clavinola I had before it tore up the record—but I was able to copy some of his solos.”   

 

 

These experiences and inspirations manifest themselves throughout the Mosaic box.  All the more remarkable when you consider that this native of Birmingham, Alabama (born June 25, 1922), was entirely self-taught.   “My dad wanted me to play the violin, which I really hated, but the guitar was really my first love.  My dad played a little five-string banjo…folk banjo. He worked in the iron foundries.  The early years were in Alabama, but during the depression we moved around quite a bit, before settling in Portland, Maine.  When I was learning, there were no teachers or methods—if I were to claim a teacher, it would’ve been the radio.”  Money being quite scarce, and blessed with a practical bent of mind, young Johnny struck a deal with the proprietor of a local shop, keeping all of the guitars perfectly in tune, in exchange for practice time; and made the most of this arrangement—because by the age of 13, Johnny was giving lessons. 

 

Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Hillbilly

Johnny On His Martin Flat Top With Uncle Lem & His Mountain Boys

 

Analyzing the hallmarks of Johnny Smith’s mature style during the primacy of his Roost years, and identifying how—consciously or subliminally—he absorbed all that he heard into a personal style, is one of the great joys in exploring the Mosaic box. 

 

First and foremost, Johnny was a remarkably gifted balladeer, with a profoundly romantic conception, as exemplified by his use of closed voicings on “Moonlight In Vermont” and “Stars Fell On Alabama”.  Here, his beautiful amplified tone and supple voice leading suggests a keyboardist’s conception, somewhere between that of a Hammond Organ and a harp to these ears—and his comping behind Stan Getz is simply sublime.  He extends upon this feeling throughout the Roost sessions on magnificent ballad performances such as “I’ll Remember Clifford,” and particularly on solo guitar arrangements that run the stylistic gamut from the American song book (“Autumn Nocturne”), to the modern classical repertoire (Debussy’s “The Girl With The Flaxen Hair”)—as well as folk and country music sources, such as  “Black Is The Color (Of My True Love’s Hair)” and “Shenandoah.”  

 

Even more impressive are Smith’s up-tempo arrangements of “Tabu” and his own composition “Jaguar,” where the guitarist,

Getz and pianist Sanford Gold articulate his jagged, twisting lines in tightly voiced harmonies which portray a scaled down big band concept (again, the interplay and cohesion Smith and Getz achieve is remarkable).  Elsewhere, on Johnny’s “Samba” (with it sly, hard swinging interpolation of the “…one little-two little-three little Indians…” cadence at the beginning of his solo) and Smith’s most famous composition, “Walk Don’t Run”

(a medium tempo bounce based on the chord changes to “Softly As A Morning Sunrise”), Smith’s single-note solos evince the characteristic grace, relaxation and coy feeling for the beat that distinguish the southwestern solo style of Lester Young and Charlie Christian (sans the elemental bluesiness, though he mines plenty of feeling from Ray Bryant’s “Pawn Ticket” and Gigi Gryce’s “Blue Lights”).  

 

But for a real eye-opener, there’s nothing quite like hearing Johnny Smith pop the clutch and air out the V-8 as he does with his phenomenal intro to Billy Strayhorn’s “Sophisticated Lady” or on the jump tempo of “S’Wonderful,” as his giddy, bubbling runs recall the unbridled gypsy spirit of Django.  And for boppish adventure, post-modernist tension and flat out swing, Johnny sure acquits himself like a jazz thoroughbred on Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe” (where his blazing lines reflect the syncopated complexity of Charlie Parker), and on my own personal fave, Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco.”  On the latter Johnny routinely doubles and triples up the time and superimposes astringent, asymmetrical harmonies over the changes in the abstract manner of post-modern saxophone virtuosos such as Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane—pretty heady stuff to pull off on a guitar.  There is a swooping, airborne quality to these solos—akin to watching test pilot Chuck Yeager ascending heavenwards as though gravity were an affliction to be borne solely by landlubbers. 

 

In truth, flight is a defining metaphor for Johnny Smith, the man and the musician.  Johnny began hanging out at the local airport soon after he and his family hit Portland, making himself useful and picking up pointers.  “Well, I started flying before WWII.  And then I went into the Air Corps, and my left eye was not 100%, so they wouldn’t let me fly.  And I ended up in a band for the duration of the war. 

 

Johnny On His Gibson L-5

Shortly Before It Was Stolen From A Checkroom In Portland, Maine

 

“And after the war, when I got to New York, and got stabilized there, I went back into flying, and I became a flight instructor—and I was an instructor for about forty years, mostly part-time, on single and multi-engine planes.  And that was really a love, and I have to believe that had I flown in WWII, and had I survived, I would’ve made flying my career.” 

 

Because there were no guitars in military bands, Smith literally had two weeks to learn enough trumpet to qualify him for the band, otherwise a dreary stint as a grease jockey in the mechanic’s corps awaited him.  However, against all odds, Johnny pulled it off.

 

Arturo Toscanini

“I Was Always Very Careful Not To Attract His Attention.”

 

Eventually Smith became so good, that the Army promoted him to the lead trumpet chair, and his reading progressed to such a degree that after the

war he was able to nail down a prestigious gig as staff guitarist at NBC

(a position he held from 1946-1958), where he was more than equal to the task of playing for such daunting leaders as Benny Goodman and the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini—not too challenging a taskmaster.  “You’ve got that right,” Johnny exclaims at the memory.  “Yes, sir, he was a tyrant all right—but he was also a genius.  I’d get the call if they were performing an opera and needed a guitar.  I remember at one rehearsal he got so angry that he took this beautiful pocket watch

and came down with it so hard on the podium, that the springs and gears and glass were flying all over the place.  I

was always very careful not to attract his attention.”   

 

Due to the varied demands of this steady work, Johnny was encouraged to play such a wide variety of music that all his sundry experiences began to coalesce into the rudiments of a personal methodology.  “One of the problems with the guitar is, by transposing it an octave higher than what it sounds, you put it into the tenor clef, which is like an extension of the tenor banjo, and that’s the way they wrote for the guitar in the early days—with this total disregard for what the bass notes were.  Well, I always encouraged guitarists to be fluent in both the bass and treble clef—because that’s where the guitar sounds.  I once performed a piece called “Serenade” that was composed by Arnold Schoenberg.  And he didn’t know anything about the guitar, nor did he need to know anything.  They showed him the pitch and what he wrote was in bass and treble clef.  As a matter of fact, when I was doing studio work in New York, they wouldn’t give me a guitar part, but a conductor’s score or a piano part, so I would know what the bass notes were, and not conflict with them. 

 

“I’m not out to change the world, but that was my upbringing as far as my career as a professional player.  And that changed my approach to the guitar—it’s a very orchestral approach to the instrument.  But in the end, everything has to be simple.  I don’t care what field it is; everything has to be simple—if it’s complicated, it’s no good.  And that’s my approach to the guitar—make everything simple.  With one exception,” he laughs, “and that’s the 6/9 chord.  And you’ve seen all these guitar books, right, with 5000 guitar chords?  Well, that’s nothing but utter confusion.  What I did in the music method I wrote for Mel Bay (The Complete Johnny Smith Approach to Guitar) was to boil everything down into about four different components, which includes major, minor, major third intervals and minor third intervals; and when you look at it that way, and dig into that concept, then everything becomes much more clear, simple…and correct.”  

 

To which we might add, intimate, articulated and beautiful—qualities that extended to the very personal relationship Johnny maintained with a number of top luthiers, leading to a succession of fine arch top guitars he employed over the years.  Johnny’s needs as a musician and as a gigging guitarist were such that he helped influence some of the most significant refinements in the design of f-hole arch top guitars since the L-5 was first introduced back in 1924 by Lloyd Loar and the Gibson design team. 

 

Lloyd Loar

Father Of The Modern Arch Top Guitar

 

During the ’30 and ’40, master luthiers such as John D’Angelico, Elmer Stromberg and Epi Stathapoulo helped perfect the arch top…as a rhythm instrument.  But due to Smith’s practical experience of the arch top guitar—and the need to interface with an amplifier—he became a catalyst for significant refinements in the evolution of the guitar as a modern solo instrument. 

 

“Early on in my career I tried different guitars.  I had a Martin, but it just didn’t seem to fit the bill for what I wanted to do.  The arch top was a much better instrument for extensive chording up and down the neck, and also it seemed better suited for single-note picking.  And of course, it had better carrying power, because in those days there was still a need for rhythm guitars in the orchestras and big bands, and the flat top just didn’t have the carrying power that the arch top did.  My first arch top guitar was a Gibson L-5, a non-cutaway model that was strictly acoustic.  And in the early days there were really no decent pickups for acoustic arch tops, but as the pick-ups started to develop, such as the early D’Armonds and pickups like that, I no longer had to step up to the mike. 

 

 

R: Mel Bay Himself, On His D’Angelico Arch Top

L: 1946 Epiphone Emperor

 

“Then just before I left Portland, Maine, to go to NYC and work for NBC, my L-5 was stolen from the check room at the hotel where I was playing, so when I got to New York I was really scratching, and of course I wasn’t able to work until I got my union card, so Gretsch made a guitar for me, but that didn’t work out, so I used a big Epiphone Emperor when I first started at NBC.  Just before a broadcast we were on break and had gone down to Hurley’s for a little libation.  And when I got back to the studio, that guitar was gone.  And then John D’Angelico made me a guitar.  I had a hard time getting D’Angelico to take any money for the guitar he built for me.  I had to force it on him, and even then I only got him to take like $250…a wonderful man.  But then a house I was renting out on Long Island burned down and my original D’Angelico guitar was destroyed.  So no, Chip, I didn’t have too much luck with guitars. 

 

“Anyway, John Collins, a very dear friend, had an older D’Angelico that he let me use while John was building me another guitar.  I liked his D’Angelico so much, I wouldn’t give it back, and I had D’Angelico build him a guitar, one of the early cutaways.  So I played John D’Angelico’s guitars all through the ‘50s and early ‘60s, and Gibson was after me all that time to endorse one of their instruments.

 

Master Guitarist John Collins

“I Liked His D’Angelico So Much, I Wouldn’t Give It Back…”

© Ray Avery

 

“Finally I went to John and told him ‘Gibson wants me to design a guitar for them,’ and John encouraged me to go ahead, and I designed a guitar that was a little different in its conception, such as in the higher register: having the neck go directly into the body, and employing cross-bracing—all to make the upper register of the guitar sustain more.  The arch top guitars of those days were hollowed out underneath the fingerboard in the very high registers.  It kind of made the upper register hard to play because the fingerboard had a tendency to drop off starting around the 15th fret.  So by putting the neck directly into the top with no space underneath, it was perfectly flat and playable right to the very last fret; plus it gave me wonderful sustain right up to the 20th fret—I guess I was one of the original nuts to go for the full range of the instrument. 

 

“I have fairly small hands, so I employed a 25” scale, like on the D’Angelicos, which was just more comfortable for me, and I had them build the body of the guitar a little more shallow than the L-5s, so while it was still a 17” instrument, it wasn’t as deep.  Also, most of the arch tops prior to that used the bass bar concept, like in a bass violin: two braces that ran along the length of the top of the guitar.  It made for a very loud instrument, and for rhythm guitar it was wonderful.  But for balance, and for even-ness and sustain, the cross bracing solved that problem.  The two braces crossed just below the end of the fingerboard, like X marks the spot, and the energy on the very high notes of the neck, starting with the high G on the first string, would be transferred from the fingerboard into the X-bracing which would transmit it in to the resonating sound-board. 

 

Gibson’s Johnny Smith Signature Model

 

“Ultimately I ended up using a flat-wound low E string on that instrument. You see, I used three different tunings, but my standard tuning was with the sixth string tuned down to D, and I had to come up with an extra-large gauge to accommodate that.  Everything else was normal.  Another tuning I employed was with the sixth, the E string, down to D, and the fifth string, the A string, down to G.  Then on some solos I used your standard E minor tuning.  But it was the D tuning, that was my normal tuning.  And so I employed a flat wound sixth string because with a round wound, number one, you got a lot of noise, and secondly, it had a nasty habit of chewing up guitar picks.  Problem was that in the early days, the quality of flat wound strings was terrible; intonation was terrible—I used to prop the strings up off the neck and take a water glass to take the edge off of the round wounds.  Finally, Black Diamond came out with a burnished string.  You got the response and the sweetness, but a little less noise.  That was the #100 set, and I used those for years, and when Black Diamond stopped making them I bought up every set I could find in the country.  That’s the only reason I could think of having a U-Haul behind a hearse—to take my guitar strings with me. There are a lot of good strings now, and the half-round strings are very good, too.”

 

As for amplification, Johnny’s experiences and frustrations echo those of every jazz guitarist who ever tried to plug an acoustic-electric arch top into an amp and set the gain loud enough to project over the drummer and still maintain a clear, balanced sound without the entire rig howling like a hound in heat. 

 

Guild Johnny Smith Signature Model

 

Well, number one, the amp is the culprit, and number two, placement of the amp is very important,” Johnny consuls.  “It’s vital to have the amp on your immediate left, with the neck pointing towards the amp, instead of in front or in back or on the right.  That eliminates a lot of feedback, and of course, your bass response is the other culprit. I always considered the amp to be an extension of the guitar, in other words, I tried to get an amp that sounded like the guitar.  I always had a problem with the standard amps like the Fenders.  And I tried to get an amp that wasn’t real heavy on the bass end—that’s what causes most feedback problems. 

 

“So the first amp that I used for many years was not a guitar amp—it was an Altec-Lansing amplifier with an Altec-Lansing speaker.  And then Ampeg’s Everett Hull built me an amp I could use, and I think they called it the Fountain of Sound as it stood up on its legs and pointed straight up.  But it had a much flatter frequency response than the commercial amps, such as the Fender which were much more suited to solid-body electric guitars. 

 

“I like an amp that has a pretty flat frequency response, without too much gain in the treble or bass.  The best way I could explain it is forget the treble and forget the bass and concentrate on the midrange, which is where, speaking only for myself, the guitar really sounds.  I’m not criticizing anyone; your sound is a very personal thing, and whatever sounds the best is the way it should be. To give you an idea, Gibson made the amp I used for many years (which I latter gave to Chet Atkins’ son), and even with the bass control full on, it still had less bass than a Fender amp did with the bass full off.  And the Fenders seemed to have too much of a treble sound, instead of a rounded sound in the high registers. 

 

Johnny With His Benedetto Cremona

 

“Finally, some years later, I asked these folks from a company in Denver called M-Rad to make me a transistorized amp with the same flat frequency response as the one Gibson had made, and they were nice enough to humor me and design the circuitry.  And I used that on the Verve things.  And in latter years when I traveled with Bing Crosby, I had a little cabinet built for just for the amplifier part, and then I would have them furnish me with a speaker on the gig, so I could just plug my amp in wherever I went instead of hauling around the whole enchilada.  In fact, when I was still performing, I would keep my settings on that amp exactly the same, all the time, and could get my sound to project just the way I wanted it whether I was accompanying a singer in a small room or on stage with a symphony.  Isn’t that something?”   

 

 

Smith kept recording until 1968 (when he cut Phase II for Verve), and continued to teach and perform around Colorado Springs and Denver well into the mid-80s.  However, a freakish airplane accident—which to my best reckoning occurred sometime around 1960 (Johnny chooses not to remember)—came close to ending his career, and likely abridged it in the final analysis. 

 

“I was in a small plane, and I was giving instructions, when my finger got caught up in this fold-down type of seat which clamped down on my finger.  I lost about a quarter of an inch off of my ring finger on my left hand, and I was out of commission for about a year.  And a Dr. Jack King, still a very dear friend of mine, did some grafting and managed to build it up some, but it was never the same.  And things I used to do before, which came so easily—like long arpeggios, and the long stretches on chords—became a lot harder.  That’s no excuse, though.  Django was outrageous with just two fingers. 

 

“But then the Ventures came out with their version of ‘Walk Don’t Run’ and that kind of saved the day.  I was always grateful to Chet Atkins, and if it wasn’t for his version of ‘Walk Don’t Run’ inspiring the Ventures to do their arrangement, I don’t know how I would have survived that period without the income that came in from that song.  The Ventures hadn’t ever heard my version of the song.  They only heard Chet’s [from the 1957 RCA Victor recording Hi Fi in Focus.]  So I don’t claim any of the credit for the success of ‘Walk Don’t Run.’  As a matter of fact, I didn’t even name the song.  I called it “Opus,” but it was Teddy Reig, the owner of Roost Records, that named it. 

 

With the royalties from “Walk Don’t Run” and the Johnny Smith Gibson, Johnny opened up a small music store in Colorado Spring and devoted himself to his new wife Sandy and their children.  His final years as a performer and recording artist were more acts of friendship and camaraderie and sharing than an expression of ego or ambition.  This extended to relationships with his students and those jobs he chose to accept as a performer that might take him out of town.  His last big time gig was with no less a personage than Bing Crosby in 1976.  The bad things that you read about him were not true and all can be explained away.  The tours I did with Bing in the two years before he died were wonderful.  He loved musicians, especially guitar players, going all the way back to Eddie Lang, and so he and I got along great.  We also had a lot in common, such as our love for hunting, fishing and the great outdoors, and I’ve kept some letters that we wrote back and forth—he was just my good buddy.”  Even his final recording from 1976 wasn’t a formal affair.  “That was never intended to be a commercial recording.  I did it to have something to pass out at seminars so people could hear my standard arrangements of pieces someone else could perform, and Carl Jefferson [Editor: the kindly looking gent pictured above with the beard and glasses] of Concord Records kept after me for years to do a recording, and finally I said I have this thing I did if you’re interested, so I sent him a cassette.”  

 

Then sometime during the mid-80s he curtailed his teaching and stopped making public appearances.  When I inquired as to whether he’d stopped playing or simply stopped performing, Smith’s response was both.  It broke my heart to hear him say that, but Johnny is speaking from a more elevated perspective. “I tell people that I made enough mistakes for one guitar player—let somebody else at it.  To sit around and just plunk on the guitar is nothing but frustration.  Because to really come close to doing what you think you’re capable of doing, you have to stay on it all the time—all the time.  It’s a physical challenge.  No, you’re either performing or you’re out of it.” 

 

“That’s tragic,” Pat Martino remarked when I passed along this story, though he quickly added as to how “…it’s true—you’ve really got to be out there in front of people under combat conditions to keep that edge.  And, he doesn’t feel like doing it, huh?”

 

I thought about it for a second and then told Pat, “Well, in the end I think he found the notion of maintaining the levels of practice, discipline and road work involved in living up to the standards of being Johnny Smith so daunting, that he wasn’t willing to settle for presenting a shadow of Johnny Smith.”  

 

“In other words, he’s been intimidated by himself,” Pat laughed…long and hard.  “If anybody would understand that from the get-go, it’s me, because I’ve been working very hard to confront and compete with my own past.”   

 

However, having said all that, and as someone who was six years old when Johnny Smith left New York for Colorado Springs, I’ve always had a little twinge of regret about never hearing him play live—although in a weird way, that only adds to the elemental mystery and musical magic behind the name, and makes recorded encounters all the more precious. 

 

Johnny Smith And Mundell Lowe Take A Curtain Call

The Chord May Be Diminished, But Johnny’s Greatness Endures

 

However, my dear Cyber-Colleague from England, Guy Littler-Jones (who fronts a nice little fan site called The Jazz Guitar) reports that when aficionados gathered at the Fourth North Wales International Jazz Guitar Festival in August of 2003, at various points over the course of the next five days, Johnny was literally ambushed with their love, and did indeed pick up the guitar for a handful of musical cameos, such as an intimate little encounter with fellow jazz guitar legend Mundell Lowe and a master class in which he was cajoled into a performance of…well, why don’t we let you enjoy Guy Littler-Jones tell you that story on his web site.  

 

In any event, this made me think that perhaps there’s hope…hope that Johnny might relent, that there might be a few more draughts of water remaining in the well.  Subsequently, in kvelling about Johnny’s mastery with his old comrade in arms, the great Hank Jones, the pianist allowed as how he might try and get Johnny to undertake some sort of duet recording project. 

 

I thought I would run this inspired notion up the flagpole perchance Johnny might salute. 

 

The Great Hank Jones

 “…The Chopin Of Jazz Piano.”

© Jose Horna

 

“Johnny, I understand those jazz guitarists at the Nort Wales Festival suckered you into paying a little.” 

 

Very little,” he demurred. 

 

“Well, my friend Guy tells me that it was simply goose-bump city when you played “Send In The Clowns.” 

 

“Well, now, that’s extremely generous of him.” [Knock, knock…come in?]

 

I kept searching for an opening…perhaps now’s the time to play my Hank Jones trump card.  He can say no to me, but how could he say no to Brother Jones? 

 

“Well,” Johnny said warmly, “I think the world of Hank.  I always refer to him as the Chopin of jazz piano.” 

 

“I know, I know, and when I told him that he was completely blown away.  And of course, he had all sorts of lovely things to say about you.  And, not that I didn’t coax it out of him a little bit, but Hank thought he might try and approach you about maybe taking on a duet project in the studio.” 

 

I could practically hear Johnny smile and shrug at the same time, and once more he politely explained that for him those days were past.  “I talked to Doc Severinsen recently, and he asked me if I ever played anymore.  And I told him, no.  And he asked, ‘Well, what about picking up the instrument and playing a bit around the house.’  And I told him, nope—never.  And he told me that he’d reached the point where he was thinking about hanging it up.  ‘And when I toot that last note, on that last night, of that last concert, that’s it—from that point on my trumpet is a lamp.’”

 

Well, I reasoned, in the company of a musician like Hank, where there’s such a strong rapport, and where the keyboard can carry so much of the weight…

 

Ka-Ching.  No Sale. 

 

“Well, I’m a selfish fan, Johnny” I teased him, “and short of showing up on your porch, having a few drinks and asking you to maybe pull out the guitar and show me a few chords, there are so many of us who would love one last opportunity to experience your artistry.  So at the risk of sounding hokey, let me try a Zen approach.  Wouldn’t be nice to be a student of music again?” 

 

“A student?”

 

“Sure,” I enthused, “at the service of music, like sitting on the back porch, and picking for the fun of it, improvising in the company of a kindred spirit, and just kind of letting the chips fall where they may—playing for your own personal pleasure?”

 

“Well, Chip” Johnny chuckled patiently, “as a jazz musician, once you reach the point of puberty, there really is no turning back.  And at that juncture, you’re never playing purely for yourself—you are always performing.  You see, the interaction with an audience is what the experience is all about.  And you don’t get any enjoyment, and you are not fulfilled, just sitting around the house and plunking away for yourself.  And to perform, to really perform, consistently and at the highest levels, is what being a musician is all about.  I’ve talked with Artie Shaw about this, and he told me the same thing.  Once he was through performing on the clarinet that was it.  He never touched it again” 

 

Pablo Picasso

The Old Guitarist

 

“Well,” I laughed wanly, “you can’t blame a guy for trying.”   

 

But such are the cycles of life, and while those of us who weren’t there to experience it for ourselves might bemoan our fate, that is why a century or so of recordings, cinema and photographs allow us to participate on some level, to get some sense of the original events and the times in which they were lived. 

 

So while we might have missed the catalytic interaction, the creative give and take between a performer and live audience that could make a gin joint like Birdland and all the other clubs on 52nd Street come alive, we have our little digital recollections to remind us of what we missed, as we sigh one more time, one more time

 

Still, Johnny Smith himself would be hard-pressed to find anything tragic in all of this.

 

“I’ve led a very fortunate life, Chip,” he reassured me.  “I can’t think of anything in life that I could realize as being better than the life I’ve had.  And that’s really all true.  It’s been a dream life in many ways, and I feel very fortunate that I was in the music business at a point that I consider to have been the very apex of live music.  When I was back in New York during the ‘40s and the ‘50s, everything was live music.  And it was one of my dreams when I was very young that I would be able to be in the company of really great musicians, and that dream came true. 

 

Johnny Smith Breaks It All Down To The Basics

“…Everything Has To Be Simple—If It’s Complicated, It’s No Good.”

 

“Of course, at the point I left New York in 1958, was when everything began to fall apart as far as live jazz was concerned—rhythm and blues and television really put a dent in live music.  But I was really fortunate to have been there during such an exciting period for live jazz.  And like I say, I’m the most fortunate person you will ever meet, Chip.  Every dream I’ve ever had has come true, across the board: getting a chance to play with the greatest musicians, that came true; flying airplanes, that came true; living in a beautiful place like Colorado Springs, that came true…and fishing for big fish,” he laughed, “that came true as well.  I’ve realized everything in life that I ever wanted to do.  Fortunately, getting rich wasn’t one of them.  I’ve always believed that wealth is not measured in money—wealth is measured in friends and good experiences.  So I’m square across the board.  Isn’t that something, Chip?”

 

“Sure is, Johnny.  Just the like kid in me I guess, like the way you never want a summer’s day to end.  Anyway, I feel so blessed just to have gotten to know you, baby.”

 

“Well I feel blessed to know you, too, Chip, and I certainly appreciate your friendship, and all of the nice things you and Jack [Wilkins] and the other fellows have had to say about me and my music on your web site.  It’s all very humbling, and I certainly wish you had a more interesting subject to talk about.  Anyway, listen my friend,” Johnny announces with breezy finality.  “It’s cocktail time out here, so I’ve got to go, but it’s been a pleasure talking with you, as always.” 

 

 

Go Johnny.

 

Go...

 

Johnny still be good.

 

 

 

 

 

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