Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Smith, Louis (Edward)

Trumpeter Louis Smith recorded a few high-profile hard bop sessions in the late 1950s, including two Blue Note LPs under his own leadership. Soon after, he chose a career in education over the precarious life of a full-time jazz musician. Smith recorded sparingly until the 1990s, when he returned to full-time studio work in a brief but brilliant second career.

Like many young trumpeters in the 1950s, Smith was deeply influenced by Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro. While as a young soloit he lacked a wholly distinctive voice, he showed great fluency in hard bop's idiom, and great potential.

Smith’s long-winded phrases are singable and melodic, gracefully rhythmic, and peppered with triplet twists and turns. His tone is pleasantly unassuming in his mid-range, but thins and weakens as he stretches above the staff. His playing in his later period became even more lyrical and leisurely - often verging on languidness - and he developed a creamier sound.

Edward Louis Smith was born in Memphis, Tennessee on May 20, 1931 into a non-musical family. An interest in music was instilled in him by his 3rd grade music teacher, an amateur jazz pianist who organized her students into a small classroom band. Smith’s mother also took him to see local and travelling big bands.

In the seventh grade, Smith originally wanted to be a saxophonist but his hands were too small to reach all of the keys, so he unenthusiastically took up the trumpet instead. His interest in his new instrument and in jazz deepened when he attended Manassas High School and joined the big band, directed by Andrew Goodrich. The band played mostly stock arrangements at local dances and recreation centers, often for pay.

Smith’s initial training came informally from his fellow trumpet playing classmates. As he aged into his later teens, he began taking private lessons from local professionals and attending jam sessions with other aspiring jazz musicians, notably on Sundays at the Mitchell Hotel.

After graduating from Manassas High in 1948, Smith attended Tennessee State University on a music scholarship. He received formal training in theory, harmony and arranging, and taught himself to improvise by listening to and transcribing trumpet solos off of records by Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Fats Navarro. While at Tennessee State, Smith played in the Tennessee State Collegians, a poll-winning jazz band that played at Carnegie Hall alongside jazz stars such as Lionel Hampton, Sarah Vaughan, and Lester Young.

Upon graduating with a degree in Music Education, Smith began graduate coursework at Tennessee State before transferring to the University of Michigan to study with renowned trumpet pedagogue Clifford Lillya. Smith played with many top notch jazz musicians who travelled through Michigan, including Davis, Gillespie, Thad Jones, and Billy Mitchell.

After successfully deferring five times, Smith was drafted into the Army in January 1954. After completing his tour of duty in late 1955 he was employed as a music teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, Georgia. During his two years in Atlanta he performed with Cannonball Adderley, Percy Heath, Philly Joe Jones, Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham, and Zoot Sims.

Smith moved to New York City in February of 1957. He recorded his first sessions as a leader for Tom Wilson’s short-lived Transition Records on February 4 and 9, 1957. Transition folded before releasing the album and Alfred Lion purchased the masters for release on Blue Note.

Lion signed Smith to an exclusive contract and released the Transition sessions as Here Comes Louis Smithlater in 1957. Smith had put together an all-star group for these first sessions, featuring Cannonball Adderley (appearing under the pseudonym “Buckshot La Funke” due to contractual obligations), Duke Jordan and Tommy Flanagan alternating on piano, Doug Watkins on bass, and drummer Art Taylor.

Duke Pearson’s first ever recorded composition “Tribute to Brownie” opens the album, and Smith’s Clifford Brown influence is immediately audible in his deftly improvised thirty second introduction, sans all backing but Taylor’s drums. The young trumpeter contributed four originals to the session, including the laid back “Brill’s Blues” and the sprightly “Val’s Blues,” “South Side,” and “Ande,” in which he and Adderley rip through the blisteringly quick “Indiana”-based changes. Smith also shows a subtler side and a comforting tone on a thoughtful take of “Stardust.”

Soon after, on March 30, 1958, Smith went into Rudy Van Gelder Studio in Hackensack, New Jersey to record his Blue Note follow-up, Smithville. Art Taylor was again on drums, and tenorman Charlie Rouse, pianist Sonny Clark, and bassist Paul Chambers rounded out the lineup. Smith plays with even more assurance than on his debut, resulting in a thoroughly engaging straight-ahead date.

Smith showcases his increasingly confident and soulful playing on the slow-drag blues “Smithville” and a mature respect for melody on a straightforward take of “Embraceable You.” He displays a thorough knowledge of classic trumpet bop vocabulary and phrase construction on swinging takes of “Au Privave” and “There Will Never be Another You “ as well as on his trio of originals, “Wetu,” “Later,” and “Bakin.’”

Smith next appeared on guitarist Kenny Burrell’s jam-session albums Blue Lights Volumes 1 and 2. Both were recorded in New York on May 14, 1958 with Tina Brooks and Junior Cook on tenor saxes, Sam Jones on bass, drummer Art Blakey, and pianists Duke Jordan on Volume 1 and Bobby Timmons on Volume 2. Smith exploits his high range with great success throughout the album, sounding particularly inspired on his feature, “Caravan.”

Needing a replacement for Art Farmer, Blue Note star pianist Horace Silver hired Smith in the summer of 1958 in time to make the group’s gig at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 6. Recently discovered by Blue Note in 2008, Live at Newport ’58 features Smith and Junior Cook backed by Silver’s most famous rhythm team, Gene Taylor on bass and Louis Hayes on drums. With Silver and company charging powerfully behind him, Smith solos brilliantly, weaving inexorable, curling lines and zooming along with his bandmates.

Smith’s tenure in Silver’s group would be brief; he was replaced by Blue Mitchell less than three months after the Newport concert. In either late 1958 or early 1959, Smith reunited with some of Memphis’s finest young jazz talent to form a one-off group called “Young Men from Memphis,” recording the album Down Home Reunion. This blowing-session featured Smith with, among others, trumpeter Booker Little, tenor saxophonist George Coleman, altoist Frank Strozier, and pianist Phineas Newborn.

Despite his increasing prominence in the jazz scene, Smith was unhappy living in New York City. He had recently married and was starting a family, so when a lucrative teaching opportunity arose at the University of Michigan he accepted and relocated, leaving his life as a jazz musician behind for the security of a new career in education.

Smith would remain in the Ann Arbor area teaching at public schools as well as the U of M and presenting workshops at colleges in the US as well as abroad in Switzerland and Germany. He would not record again until March 19, 1978. The resulting album, Just Friends, was released by SteepleChase and featured fellow Memphinians George Coleman, pianist Harold Mabern and bassist Jamil Nasser, along with drummer Ray Mosca.

Prancin’ followed in 1979, with Smith and Junior Cook fronting a stellar rhythm section of Sir Roland Hanna on piano, bassist Sam Jones, and Billy Hart on drums. He contributed six originals to the album.

Smith again retreated from the studio throughout the 1980s to focus on teaching. In 1990 his recording schedule became more consistent, starting with Ballads for Lulu, a moody and sentimental album of standard ballads dedicated to his wife. Joining Smith were Jim McNeely on piano, Bob Cranshaw on bass, and Keith Copeland on drums. Silvering and Strike Up the Band - more comparatively up-tempo affairs - followed in 1994 and paired him with tenormen Von Freeman and Junior Cook, respectively. Though Smith’s projection and control were weaker than in his youth, he retained his lyrical fluidity and was more genuinely touching on ballads.

The Very Thought of You, a duo album with pianist Jodie Christian, was recorded and released in 1995. The next year, Smith released I Waited for You, an unofficial tribute to Miles Davis. Smith and company—saxophonist Vincent Herring, pianist Richard Wyands, bassist Dennis Irwin, and drummer Kenny Washington—perform Davis’s originals “Dig,” “Solar,” “Half Nelson,” “Vierd Blues,” and “Milestones” and fill out the rest of the album with three tunes intimately associated with Miles, “I Waited for You,” “Walkin,’” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

There Goes My Heart followed in 1997. Smith officially retired from teaching in 1999. SteepleChase released Once In a While and Soon in early 2000, The Bopsmith in 2001 and Louisville in 2004, which would ultimately become his final album.

Tragically, Louis Smith suffered a stroke in 2005 and lost the ability to speak. No longer able to play his trumpet, he continues to rehabilitate and recover at his home, hoping to play his trumpet once again.

Select Discography


Here Comes Louis Smith (1957)

Smithville (1958)

Just Friends (1978)

Prancin’ (1979)

Ballads for Lulu (1990)

Silvering (1994)

Strike Up the Band (1994)

The Very Thought of You (1995)

I Waited For You (1996)

There Goes My Heart (1997)

Once In a While (2000)

Soon (2000)

The Bopsmith (2001)

Louisville (2004)


Blue Light Vols. 1 & 2 (Kenny Burrell, 1958)

Down Home Reunion (Young Men from Memphis, 1959)

Sweet Lotus Lips (Mickey Tucker, 1989)

Contributor: Matt Leskovic