Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Echoes of Spring
Echoes of Spring
Willie 'The Lion' Smith (piano)
Happy Birthday Newport: 50 Swinging Years (Columbia/Legacy 89076)
Willie 'The Lion' Smith (piano),
Jimmy Zitano (drums).
Composed by Tausha Hammed, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith & Clarence Williams.
Recorded: live at Newport Jazz Festival, RI, July 5, 1958
Rating: 92/100 (learn more)
The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s is justly celebrated for its flowering of African-American artistic and intellectual accomplishment, in which white Eurocentric models were demoted in favor of black indigenous cultural expression. Jazz musicians, however, proved problematical to this movement. No less a dignitary than Duke Ellington labored on the Cotton Club plantation, catering to all-white patrons with jungle-themed floor shows that reinforced racist stereotypes of "darkies" in their native habitat.
Another gifted jazzman, with closer ties to the hoi polloi, was even more marginalized. Stride pianist Willie 'the Lion' Smith made the nightly rounds of rent parties, born of necessity in segregated neighborhoods where housing demand so exceeded supply that exorbitant rents were charged for squalid tenements. Given his talent and charisma, the cigar-chomping, derby-wearing Lion soon became a star attraction at such hat-passing events. But a piano player whose fee was $10 and all he could eat wasn't exactly the "New Negro" idealists had in mind.
Not that it mattered to Willie, for the Lion was blessed with abundant self-esteem. The only one who lionized Willie 'the Lion' Smith more than his fellow musicians did was Willie 'the Lion' Smith himself. He also possessed a wry wit, which he brandishes on this live track. Introducing what he jokingly calls "one of my latest tunes" (actually decades old), the Lion offers his audience in that 1950s bastion of WASP affluence—Newport, Rhode Island—a traditional Yiddish toast: Zei Gesund ("To your health").
His listeners laughed, but only at the incongruous language and not at the reference to his "latest tune," which to most festival goers probably was new. Following the Lion's own first recording in 1935, "Echoes of Spring" (then titled "Echo of Spring" ) was seldom covered by other pianists, commencing a neglect that persists to this day. Why such a fine composition is so rarely rendered is unfathomable. Like Ellington's "Black Beauty" (1928), Gershwin's "Prelude No. 2" (1926) and the same composer's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924), "Echoes of Spring" is both a classic Jazz Age piano piece and an indispensable slice of Americana.
Admittedly, this particular performance, while charming, is far from flawless. At age 60˝, the Lion was no longer King of the Cutting Contests, as he'd been 30 years before. Yet through his occasional sloppiness shines the loveliest and most enchanting obscurity in the jazz literature. If the Lion, who died in 1973, is reading this on the high-speed Internet in Jazz Heaven, we extend our salutations and offer a hearty toast: Zei Gesund, Leib.
Reviewer: Alan Kurtz