Today In Jazz

Happy Birthday Stuff Smith!

August 14

Violinist Stuff Smith is born in Portsmouth, OH, in 1909. Smith broke every rule of classical violin playing. He was a pioneer on the electric violin, sang novelty tunes while wearing a rumpled top hat, a parrot sometimes perched on his shoulder, and gave the rhythmic beat and an emotionally expressive sound precedence over formal academic technique. His bluesy, speech-inflected style was unmistakably distinct from the European-influenced approaches of Swing Era violinists Joe Venuti, Stephane Grappelli and Eddie South. Yet every jazz (and some non-jazz) violinist who came after Smith was influenced by him, although none could quite capture the raw, squalling tones he forged from his fiddle. At age 15, Smith, under the spell of Louis Armstrong, abandoned a classical musical education in favor of showbiz–specifically, a (black) vaudeville entourage called the Aunt Jemima Revue (they probably were paid in pancakes). Before the Jazz Age champagne had gone flat, Smith had played with the excellent Southwest territory band led by Alphonso Trent, as well as legendary composer/pianist Jelly Roll Morton. In 1930, in the teeth of the Depression, Smith started organizing his own groups, and by 1935 had found a winning combination that included trumpeter Jonah Jones and a novelty tune called “I’se a Muggin,’” which he parlayed into a long engagement at the Onyx Club on New York’s 52nd Street (so long, in fact, that he named his group Stuff Smith & His Onyx Club Boys). In 1943, he took over the recently deceased Fats Waller’s band, but he almost disappeared into the black hole of postwar changes in public taste and nightclub taxes that doomed many Swing Era stars–that is, until producer Norman Granz started recording Smith in the 1950s, pairing him with Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Oscar Peterson on a memorable 1957 date for Verve records. Smith also appeared on Nat Cole’s 1956 album After Midnight, and continued recording through declining health until his death in 1967. Listen to Smith with Gillespie and Peterson playing Ellington’s blues, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” here:

Drummer Jimmy Wormworth is born in 1937 in Utica, NY. Trumpeter John Marshall is not alone when he calls Wormworth “a living part of jazz history,” for the ever-humble Wormworth is a prominent–albeit subtle–skein in the music’s fabric. At age 20, he was leading a quartet in a tour of Europe. A couple of years later, with pianist Mal Waldron and bassist Peck Morrison, he composed the house rhythm section at the crucial New York City club, the Five Spot, where he worked with such luminaries as trumpeters Art Farmer, Booker Little and Kenny Dorham; and saxophonists Pepper Adams and John Coltrane. In the 1960s, Wormworth played with saxophonists Lou Donaldson, Charlie Rouse and Sahib Shihab; piano wizard Phineas Newborn; and singers Babs Gonzalez and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (with whom he still plays). He topped all of those in 1969, when he backed up Coleman Hawkins at the Fillmore East (the great saxophonist’s penultimate performance, at a venue usually reserved for LSD-dropping rock bands–and the setting of a potentially fascinating piece of fiction). Wormworth recorded with many of the aforementioned artists, as well as younger generations of performers, such as the pianist Tardo Hammer. Catch  Wormworth performing the Walter “Gil” Fuller/Ray Brown tune, “Ray’s Idea,” live with the saxophonist Gabor Bolla Quartet in 2007, here: