Found! The Memoirs of Willie The Lion Smith

Smith, willie-Wordpress-1It’s a bar in Atlantic City, with some dude striding across the keys, playing a joyful kind of piano music that sounds like it could be from a movie made around the turn of the century. Before he plays the next tune, he explains what he’s doing and why. But he doesn’t recite a laundry list of dull names, dates and places, no sir. He’s reciting the living history of early jazz and he would know. He’s one of its masters.

That’s exactly what jazz pianist Willie Smith does, on The Memoirs of Willie The Lion Smith (RCA LSP 6016, stereo). On this two LP set, Willie does as much talking as playing and it’s a rare chance to hear him glibly talk about what we would now call jazz, before it had a name.

Lion-14aSmith is one of the great stride pianists and he makes no bones about that. He is quick to point out the lesser pianists were your average ragtime players, demonstrating the difference and making sure you know that they weren’t as talented. Real pianists had to know progressions, use both hands, singing, directing and dancing.

I often assume that the great jazz musicians were self taught. Smith probably was to some degree, but he was also classically trained by a German, Hans Stankey (sp?). I think Smith saw himself as above some of the other players, perhaps because he was trained, but also because he took those lessons and excelled beyond them. Smith also must have won many a cutting contest…a chance for a player to get on stage and try to outdo the other, to ‘cut them.’

He also talks about how a ‘whiskey tenor’ (probably a sax player who had too much to drink) didn’t care too much about the rest of band and would play in any key he wanted. That meant the rest of the band had to change keys and transpose chords on the fly… quite a skill even for a modern musician. Smith is proud of that ability. I doubt you’ll read about whiskey tenors and their effect on the band in a standard jazz history text.

Lion-21aNo, stride piano isn’t modern piano, but it’s the precursor to what the bop players eventually turned into modern jazz. Stride required a better left hand than the raggers, and a better left begat the need for a better right hand. That right hand had to solo in more complex ways. Bop players took soloing even further.

So don’t expect Willie to sound like Bud Powell or Oscar Peterson. This is pre World War II music, more Cole Porter than Bill Evans. To the uninitiated, they might call it ragtime, but it really isn’t. I think it’s bright and uplifting, sometimes its a little silly. But if you really listen to what the left hand is doing compared to the right, it’s not easy. There’s no doubt that Smith is extremely talented.

Willie plays excerpts and at times, complete tunes. He does some singing and while he isn’t what I’d call a great singer, he must have been great at engaging the audiences of the day. Like Louis Armstrong, Smith was an entertainer.

I found this LP to quite entertaining and more so, educational. Reading about stride piano is fine, hearing Smith talk about it, cigar in mouth, is much better. You get a sense of the times and a sense of the musicians who existed in that time. What it took to survive and prosper in the 1920s and 30s as an African American musician. It’s in his words, how he says them and how he plays.

Lion-16aThe recording quality is good enough for what this is, a lesson in history. It won’t knock your socks off. I don’t think the engineers at RCA were thinking of it that way. It’s stereo, but just barely. Smith’s voice comes through very clearly as does the piano.

Makes me wish I could have been there to hear Smith play in one of those bars, observing the world around him and writing a tune based on that. If learning about the music is part of your mission, this LP is worth seeking out. Check out a couple of minutes from the LP below!