Jazzed in Cleveland
a jazz history by Joe Mosbrook
Jazzed in Cleveland Complete Index

Part 129 - Remembering Willie Smith

Story filed January 27, 2010

When I first heard that Cleveland jazz legend Willie Smith had died, my mind immediately flashed back to a night in 1999 when three-time Jazz Artist of the Year Joe Lovano was home for the holidays and playing at the Cleveland Bop Stop, then located on West 6th Street. Inside the crowded and energy-filled club, I spotted a number of familiar faces, including longtime Cleveland saxophonist, composer, arranger and leader Willie Smith, who had played years ago with Lovano’s father, Tony "Big T" Lovano. "We used to play together quite a bit," Smith told me. "He was a good musician."

On this night, Joe Lovano put together a group of Cleveland musicians to play with him and told me he asked Smith to write some new small orchestra arrangements for the Bop Stop gig. Lovano called Smith "a total natural and complete beautiful musician." Lovano and the group played a number of Smith’s new arrangements, including "52nd Street Theme," written by Thelonious Monk and several compositions by Cleveland native Tadd Dameron.

After playing that night at the Bop Stop, Lovano said he wanted to record some of Smith’s new arrangements. Lovano’s idea was to recall some of the bebop of the 1950s on New York’s famed 52nd Street and feature the new Willie Smith arrangements of that music.

Lovano went into a recording studio in New York City and recorded the charts Willie had written for him. Blue Note Records released the album titled 52nd Street Themes. It included Dameron’s "If You Could See Me Now," "On a Misty Night," "The Scene is Clean," "Whatever Possess’d Me," and "Tadd’s Delight." In addition there were songs by Miles Davis, Billy Strayhorn and George Gershwin, as well as originals by both Lovano and Smith.

With so much Cleveland influence, we joked at the time that the album could very well have been entitled Euclid Avenue Themes.

But the story didn’t end there. The compact disc, with all sorts of Cleveland connections, was later nominated for a Grammy Award.

CLICK HERE to listen to Smith's low-key reaction.

Joe Lovano’s 52nd Street Themes, with orchestrations by Willie Smith, won the Grammy Award for the Best Jazz Record of the Year. It was also selected by the Down Beat magazine poll as the Best Jazz Album of the Year. Suddenly, Smith, who had been doing his musical thing in Cleveland for years, was getting wide attention. "It gave me a whole lot of recognition, which I was very grateful for," he said. "There were a lot of people that I hadn’t seen in years who contacted me after the award."

Willie Smith

Smith grew up on East 36th Street, just a couple doors away from his good friend Benny Bailey. In 1945, he and the young trumpeter played with the band of Scatman Carouthers in Akron and went with Carouthers to California where they met and played with some of the all-time giants of jazz. Three years later, they both joined the high-flying Lionel Hampton Orchestra. "He had a blowing-type band," said Willie, "a band where you have a lot of fun." Bailey played trumpet with Hampton’s band and Smith arranged and composed. Hampton recorded Smith’s composition "Cool Train."

For seven years in the 1960s, Smith worked for Motown Records. "I spent a lot of time taking Motown stars out," said Smith, "stars like Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, the Tops, the Temptations, Vandellas, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye – all those people. We would take them out and I was writing for them."

When he returned to Cleveland in the early 1970s, Smith returned to his jazz roots. He composed, arranged, played and recorded with what he called his "Little Big Band."

That night at the Cleveland Bop Stop, when Lovano decided to record some of Willie’s arrangements, led to a crowning achievement in the long and productive career of Willie Smith. Ten years later, he lost his battle with colon cancer December 1, 2009 at the age of 83.

Copyright 2010 Joe Mosbrook

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