Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Smith, Stuff (Hezekiah Leroy Gordon)

Some say Hezekiah Leroy Gordon “Stuff” Smith was the first to make the violin swing. Others say it was Joe Venuti, and still others argue it was Eddie South. It scarcely matters, because Smith was certainly among the first and very best jazz violinists, and he remains so decades after his death. And unlike his more conservative peers, Smith's harmonic adventurousness earned him admiration from beboppers including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie.

Like Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, Smith was of a generation of jazz performers which embraced being entertainers as well as musicians. Like them, he was a singer and personality with a flair for showmanship - he often performed wearing a tattered top-hat and a stuffed parrot perched upon his shoulder.

Smith's style on the violin was somewhat analogous to Armstrong’s in the sense that it was spirited, swung irresistibly, and crackled with dynamic energy and joie de vivre. Also like Armstrong, Smith’s approach was rich with the blues, with a “wail” you could here and feel. He sang with a genial, slightly scratchy voice that mixed uptown-suave attitude with an affable, randy rascality, like Waller.

Smith was born on August 14, 1909 in Portsmouth, Ohio, and grew up in nearby Cleveland. He first studied violin with his father, who was incongruously also a boxer. At age fifteen, he won a music scholarship to Johnson C. Smith University, where he studied classical violin. According to Stuff, once he heard Louis Armstrong play, he set his sights on jazz, and by the mid-1920s, and he left school to tour with a minstrel show, the Aunt Jemima Revue.

In 1926, he joined the Dallas-based band of Alphonse Trent, a pianist and bandleader. Other Trent alumni included Charlie Christian, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and Herbert “Peanuts” Holland. Smith was featured as singer and violinist in the band and stayed with Trent for four years, although he briefly left to join pianist Jelly Roll Morton's band, but quit complaining Morton's band drowned out the sound of his violin.

In 1930, Smith formed his own band in Buffalo, New York, with an eye towards breaking into the New York City market. He got his chance in late 1935, when a novelty song he had written – "I'se A-Muggin" – caught the ear of saxophonist and empresario Dick Stabile, who booked Smith to play at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street. Smith and his "Onyx Club Boys," which included trumpeter Jonah Jones, clarinetist Buster Bailey, pianist Clyde Hart, and drummer Cozy Cole, played a regular gig at the club until 1938, and recorded several sides for Vocalion, including "Muggin'," "Twilight in Turkey," and "Here Comes the Man With the Jive." One of Smith's novelties, "You'se A Viper," was covered by Fats Waller in 1943.

Smith had experimented with ways to amplify his violin, but it was during his tenure at the Onyx Club that he began to play a "Vio-Lectric" model which was custom-built for him by the National Dobro Company, which he then endorsed and played widely.

In 1937, Smith traveled to Hollywood, where he he expected to appear in the film 52nd Street, but the project collapsed amidst contract disputes. In March of 1938, Smith was forced to declare bankruptcy, but regrouped with Cole and Jones on the East Coast. In the spring of 1942, he formed a group with several of Fats Wallers' former sidemen. The musicians had moved on when Waller's alcoholism led to erratic behavior; after less than a year, they collectively fired Smith for similar reasons.

It is true that Smith was a devoted drinker and not exactly the easiest person to deal with, and frequently found himself at loggerheads with club owners, bookers, business people, and his fellow musicians, and his career suffered as a result.

After a return engagement at the Onyx in the fall of 1944 and spring of 1945, Smith settled in Chicago, touring and recording as he could. In 1950, he was a regular guest on telecasts hosted by local DJ Al Benson, but was abruptly fired after he got into a fistfight with his host on air. In 1951 he toured with Dizzy Gillespie, and in 1953, he made a recording at the home of Herman Poole Blount, the keyboardist who the world later came to know as "Sun Ra. In April of 1956, Smith was a featured guest on Nat “King” Cole’s back-to-his-jazz-roots album for Capitol, After Midnight, which has been reissued on CD as After Midnight: The Complete Session.

In 1957, producer and Verve Records founder Norman Granz hired Smith for a series of recordings, and to tour with his Jazz At The Philharmonic roadshow. While Smith was among the Swing Era musicians who initially scorned bebop, he fits in well to these sessions with, among others, pianists Oscar Peterson and Carl Perkins.

Smith played with a wide vibrato and a deep tone—at times it could sound almost like a saxophone. On the track “Calypso” from the January, 1957 album Have Violin, Will Swing, Smith begins by plucking his strings and playing a simple bluesy passage,then jumps higher in register and lets loose a wail of swing which almost resembles a human voice. He dances around the melody, rising and subsiding, swinging the blues up and down the scale with swagger. During Carl Perkins’ cool yet jaunty solo, Smith taps his instrument in time, as if he’s trying to urge Perkins to loosen up. Smith steps back in, wailing in a blues-charged manner, punctuating his lines with some raspy, almost guttural, asides, all without ever losing his sense of elegant swing.

While his swing was elegant, Smith wasn't, and that’s not a negative - he could play “pretty,” but his overall approach accented rhythm and passion over traditional technique and the lyrical, woody tone associated with the violin. On “Soft Winds,” from the session with Oscar Peterson, Smith makes with some energetic, brilliantly queasy trills that sound like they’d be more at home on an early 1960s John Coltrane session or Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack for Psycho. While “Winds” is an easygoing, mid-tempo ballad Smith adds a few serrated asides that sound sharp enough to physically cut through the speakers.

In May of 1957, Granz teamed Smith in New York with Dizzy Gillespie and Wynton Kelly, resulting in the album Dizzy Gillespie/Stuff Smith. While it might seem an odd combination - a proto-bopper and a Swing Era titan - it worked very nicely. Gillespie cited Smith as an influence, and an example that a musician could engage in art and entertain simultaneously.

Smith went on to play at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1961 and 1962, and toured Europe several times. Stuff found European audiences and musicinas to be very receptive to his style, and he hooked up with violinists such as Jean-Luc Ponty and Stephane Grappelli, and also played with American expatriates, such as Kenny Drew. In 1965, Smith relocated to Copenhagen, Denmark, but his decades of hard drinking caught up with him. Two years later, Stuff Smith - who’d already had part of his stomach and liver removed -passed away in Munich. He is buried in Copenhagen.

Select Discography

STUFF SMITH—DIZZY GILLESPIE—OSCAR PETERSON (Verve, CD, 1994, compilation)

CAT ON A HOT FIDDLE (Verve, 1959)

VIOLINS NO END (with Stephane Grappelli) (Verve, 1957)_

COMPLETE 1936-1937 SESSIONS (Hep, compilation)

AFTER MIDNIGHT: THE COMPLETE SESSION (with Nat Cole) (Capitol, 1956)

Contributor: Mark Keresman