Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Smith, Jabbo (Cladys)

At his best, trumpeter Cladys “Jabbo” Smith’s power and virtuosity made him the only true rival to Louis Armstrong in the late 1920s. Where Satchmo was elegant, Jabbo was bright and penetrating, and his attack aggressive. He was an extremely risky and often reckless player, attempting runs and notes no other instrumentalist could even fathom at the time. This explosiveness and chance-taking led to some inconsistency, but his successes are so sensational that the blunders are easily forgiven.

Smith was born in Pembroke, Georgia on December 24, 1908. At age four, his father passed away and he and his mother moved to Savannah. At six, he was placed in the Jenkins Orphanage Home by his mother, when the duties of motherhood became too difficult for her to handle alone. However, she did find a job at the Home in order to remain close to her son.

 Cladys “Jabbo” Smith

The Jenkins Home was known for its exceptional music program, and many of its alumni went on to become jazz stars including Ellington trumpeter Cat Anderson and Basie guitarist Freddie Green. By the age of eight, Smith had settled on the trumpet, after starting on trombone, and was taught by Alonzo Mills. By age ten, he was touring the country with the Orphanage’s brass band.

After many repeated attempts at running away from the Jenkins Home, he finally left for good in 1925 at the age of sixteen to pursue a professional career in music. He promised his mother he would never work for less than $100 a week, a lofty goal at the time and one that came to impede his career down the road.

Heading north, Smith’s first gig was with the Harry Marsh Band in Philadelphia, followed by three years in Harlem-based Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten, which also featured altoist Benny Carter. Smith can be heard in impressive form on his solo on Johnson’s “You Ain’t the One.”

In 1927, Smith missed out on what could have been his big break. Duke Ellington asked the eighteen-year-old trumpeter to replace his star soloist, Bubber Miley, at a recording session for Okeh Records on November 3rd. Smith recorded three tracks with Ellington, “What Can a Poor Fellow Do?,” “Chicago Stomp Down,” and “Black and Tan Fantasy.” which had been a feature for Miley.

On this track, Smith displays deftness with a mute, a penchant for bluesy bent notes, and early use of alternate fingerings. Armstrong’s influence is clear; Smith alternates vibrato-filled sustained notes with an operatic elasticity of rhythm.

While not as memorable or as confident as Miley’s comical growls, Smith certainly showed the potential of a burgeoning star at his ripe, young age. Ellington was impressed enough to offer him a steady job in the trumpet section for $65 a week. Smith kept his promise to his mother, however, and ultimately turned down what would have been the opportunity of a lifetime and one that would have most certainly made him a bigger star.

His career kept temporarily moving forward, however. In 1928, Smith joined the pit orchestra for the Broadway show “Keep Shufflin.’” The show's band featured Smith alongside Fats Waller on organ, James P. Johnson on piano, and altoist Garvin Bushnell—recorded four sides for Victor on 27 March 1928 under the name the Louisiana Sugar Babies.

Smith was at the top of his game in 1929, when “Keep Shuflin’” abruptly halted in Chicago. Here, he made his most enduring and virtuosic recordings, with a group he formed there and named the Rhythm Aces. The band recorded nineteen sides for the Brunswick Record Company, including “Jazz Battle,” one of Smith’s most thrilling recordings.

On this track, he displays his exceptional range and facility on the cornet through blistering double-timed passages as well as advanced use of chromatics and “tricks” such as alternate fingerings. No other trumpeter could create such raucous fire or a tone with as much bite as Smith’s - it doesn’t get much hotter than this. His marginal success as a scat singer is also documented on his sides with the Rhythm Aces.

Brunswick was hoping that fans of Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens would take a similar liking to Smith and his Rhythm Aces. Unfortunately, there was little public response and Smith never received the attention they had anticipated. One significant fan, however, was a young trumpeter named Roy Eldridge, who was greatly influenced by Smith’s breakneck, daredevil techniques. Eldridge adapted Smith’s chance-taking style and became the trumpet champion of the swing era. Considering Eldridge’s influence on the father of modern jazz trumpet, Dizzy Gillespie, Smith is a crucial although often overlooked link in the lineage of jazz trumpeters.

Smith performed with many bands in the 1930s, including Carroll Dickerson, Earl Hines, Erskine Tate, Charlie Elgar, Tiny Parham, Fess Williams, and Claude Hopkins. Due to his excessive alcohol consumption and increasing unreliability, he gradually withdrew from performance as the decade went on. In 1938, he led an eight-piece orchestra of his own into the studio for Decca, recording four sides. His playing on “More Rain, More Rest” is much more laid back than his Rhythm Aces sides, and his tone is more controlled and rounded.

Smith married and moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1940, playing locally but making a living working at a car rental agency. Over the next three decades, he was all but forgotten, until saxophonist Dave Sletten tracked him down in 1974, and asked him to perform with his traditional jazz group, the Wolverines Classic Jass Orchestra. This exposure led to a rediscovery of Smith's talents, and in 1979 he was featured in the Broadway musical “One Mo’ Time,” playing and singing his own new compositions. Soon after, he returned to performing, touring Europe, appearing at jazz festivals and playing in New York City at the West End Café, the Bottom Line, and the Village Vanguard with the Mel Lewis Orchestra.

In 1983, two albums were released consisting of tunes Smith recorded at rehearsals in 1961. He suffered a stroke in May 1990, rendering him incapable of playing. On 16 January 1991, at the age of 82, Jabbo Smith died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan.

Select Discography

as a leader

Jabbo Smith: 1929-1938 (Classics 669)

with Charlie Johnson's Original Paradise Ten

Harlem Big Bands (Timeless CBC 1-01)

with the Rhythm Aces

Hot Jazz in the Twenties, Vol. 1 (Biograph BCD 151)

with Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

The OKeh Ellington (Columbia 46177)

Contributor: Matt Leskovic