Jabbo Smith: A Study in Stubbornness

jabbo smith

When one discusses the great trumpet and cornet players in jazz, a long list of names come to mind, but when restricted to the late 1920s-early ‘30s only four names come up with any regularity: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Bubber Miley and Red Nichols. There are strong, valid reasons why each of them are still remembered, particularly for this period of jazz, but one name that is seldom brought up except by serious collectors is that of Cladys “Jabbo” Smith.

Jabbo was born on December 24, 1908, the son of a barber and church organist who unfortunately died in 1912. Smith’s mother, who did washing and sewing to earn a living, fond it increasingly harder to care for him so in 1915 he was placed in the Jenkins Orphanage of Charleston, South Carolina where he learned to play the trumpet and trombone. His mother sought employment and was hired by the Jenkins Home so she could be close to her son. Cladys was so adept at learning his instruments that four years later, at the age of 10, he was touring with the Jenkins Band. This so impressed his mother that she made him promise her that he would never accept any job that paid less that $100 a week, an astronomical salary for an itinerant musician in those days. After unsuccessfully trying (and failing) to run out of the orphanage on his own several times, he did manage to leave for good in 1926, at the age of 17, where he headed north.

Apparently, the young but brilliant Jabbo was able to get the $100 a week he wanted, because he found work both in the recording studio and, more importantly, on the bandstand, particularly that of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten, a hot Harlem band known more to musicians than to the general public. The lineup included, in addition to Jabbo, Leonard Davis on second cornet, Charlie Irvis on trombone and a young Benny Carter on clarinet, soprano and alto saxes. Smith also found employment in the recording studio with Thomas Morris’ Hot Babies, including a couple of sessions with Fats Waller on piano, and in November 1927 the 18-year-old sat in for an important OKeh recording date with Duke Ellington’s hot “Jungle Band,” playing solos on What Can a Poor Fellow Do?and Black and Tan Fantasy. Ellington offered Smith a permanent job in his band, but since the Cotton Club didn’t pay top dollar he couldn’t offer more than $65 a week, so Jabbo turned it down. This was just the first of several poor career choices made by the young hotshot trumpeter.

Partly due to his recording work with Morris, Smith was offered a spot in the pit band of the 1928 Broadway show Keep Shufflin’, where he joined Waller on organ, James P. Johnson on piano and Garvin Bushell on alto sax. This band recorded four titles for Victor under the name of the Lousiana Sugar Babes. But the real Jabbo Smith didn’t fully emerge on records until the following year when he was stranded in Chicago, while on the road with Keep Shufflin’, when famed gangster Arnold Rothstein—the backer of the show—died from an unfortunate case of lead poisoning (he was gunned down, gangland style). Since he was now a seasoned musician he was able to find a good amount of work, and someone put him in touch with Mayo Williams, recording director of Brunswick Records in Chicago. Williams asked him to form a recording group, which he called The Rhythm Aces (“Four Aces and the Joker”), to compete with Louis Armstrong’s popular Hot Five series on rival OKeh. Between January 29 and August 22, 1929, Smith cut 20 sides for Brunswick on which he cut loose with some of the most exciting, original and at times strange trumpet solos ever recorded. Just listen, for instance, to Jazz Battle from the January 29 session, which starts out with an brunswick7078impromptu cadenza that sounds a bit like Armstrong’s on West End Blues but played at warp speed. Like Armstrong, Smith utilizes initial note and terminal vibrato—something he held back from in his earlier recordings—but he also plays much more wild solos, staying up almost consistently in the top third of his range and building his solos around rather wild triplet figures. In his early sessions he was lucky enough to obtain the services of the great Omer Simeon, Jelly Roll Morton’s favorite clarinetist, a superb technician with a fine ear and first-class reading skills who could weave appropriate counterpoint around Smith’s sometimes Baroque fantasies. In the later recordings made from March 30 on, Simeon was replaced by the so-so alto saxist George James, but the trade-off was that the merely competent pianist Cassino Simpson was replaced by an excellent, underrated player named Earl Frazier.

Croonin the BluesThe Rhythm Aces records swung, but in an odd sort of way. Although it took Dizzy Gillespie to fully break the mold between the jazz rhythm of Armstrong and that of future jazz, on these 1929 recordings Jabbo Smith is already pushing the envelope. Small wonder that, despite Williams’ promotion for them in the black newspaper The Chicago Defender, they sold fairly poorly and were soon forgotten…except by a handful of musicians, among them young Roy Eldridge. Eventually the younger Eldridge met his idol in person, but that first encounter wasn’t a very happy one for him. By Eldridge’s own account, “Jabbo Smith caught me one night and turned me every way but loose…he wore me out …He knew a lot of music and changes.”

As the new decade of the 1930s dawned, it seemed as if young Smith was headed for a very rosy future, but something happened. He faded for a few years, only to be rediscovered in 1935 by jazz record producer Helen Oakley (who would later marry critic Stanley Dance) under the name of Charles LaVere & his Chicagoans. In 1938 he recorded four sides for Decca under the name Jabbo Smith and his Orchestra, but shortly thereafter he married and moved to his wife’s home town—Milwaukee, Wisconsin, about as far from the hub of jazz activity as one could get during those Depression years. In Milwaukee he collaborated with saxist Bill Johnson but by the early 1940s dropped out of sight, working regularly for an auto tire company and only playing occasionally on the side.

Jabbo in July 1979 w Orange Kellin

Jabbo Smith in July 1979 with trombonist Frog Joseph (rear) and clarinetist Orange Kellin

Several guesses have been made as to why Jabbo chose this route, but the one that makes sense is that, as the Depression worsened, he couldn’t find anyone willing or able to pay him $100 a week. It was also said that he enjoyed women and liquor more than music. Whatever the reason, he wasn’t rediscovered until the early 1960s, and his chops were rusty. It took him some years to regain at least part of his form, and although the spectacular, constant high-range excursions were a thing of the past, he could occasionally regain some of the speed of his youth and his musical ideas were often as good as before. The problem was that he was now placed in strictly “trad jazz” settings, playing with such old New Orleans geezers as trombonist Frog Joseph and guitarist Danny Barker in addition to the excellent (but still trad-jazz) white clarinetist Orange Kellin. The mere thought of Jabbo Smith, former avant-garde dynamo, playing such pap as Muskrat Ramble and Down in Honky-Tonk Town was a bit anachronistic, rather like putting Roy Eldridge (also still alive at that time) in a ragtime band, but as you can hear from their recorded performances, Jabbo had his blinders on and just tore through his solos as if he were still with the Rhythm Aces.

One of Smith’s most commercial successes came when he accepted singer-dancer-producer Vernel Bagneris’ invitation to join the stage band of his surprising hit retro show, One Mo’ Time, in 1979. He didn’t get a lot of exposure in the tight arrangements, which were tailored to feature the vocalists in the show, but what he did play still sounded marvelous. He was still playing well, I am told, when he appeared in Berln in 1986 and greatly impressed the avant-garde trumpeter Don Cherry, a veteran of the famous Ornette Coleman Quartet of the late 1950s-early ‘60s.

In October 1990 jazz writer and aficionado Len Weinstock nominated Smith to the Coastal Jazz Hall of Fame since he had been born in Savannah, Georgia. He was quickly accepted but, having suffered a stroke in May of that year, was living in the Village Nursing Home in New York. He died on January 16, 1991, but had already learned of his acceptance into the Hall of Fame from his closest friend in his last years, the wonder owner of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon. She accepted the award on his behalf in Savannah at the induction ceremonies in May, 1991.

It’s not difficult to hear in Jabbo Smith’s playing of 1928-29 the germination of an entirely new style of jazz that would not develop for another decade or find a name until after World War II, and it’s more than a shame that he wasn’t active at that time or recognized for his achievements. Had he stayed in New York, I’m sure he would have found a good paying job in a band—perhaps even a white band like Gene Krupa’s or Artie Shaw’s, famous for hiring black talent during the Swing Era—and he might have broken through to commercial popularity in addition to artistic achievement as Roy Eldridge and Henry “Red” Allen did. We’ll never know just how far Jabbo Smith might have taken his talent, because for whatever reason, it just wasn’t that important to him.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

Listen to Jabbo Smith here.

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