Profiles in Jazz: Jabbo Smith

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Jazz history is full of bright flames, artists who come out of nowhere, make a very strong impression, and then burn out, often having a premature death. But no one seems to have had a career quite like that of Jabbo Smith. In 1929, Jabbo Smith was arguably jazz’s #2 trumpeter/cornetist (only behind Louis Armstrong), a brilliant 20-year old virtuoso who had unlimited potential and made a series of dazzling recordings. A year later he was a forgotten has-been. Despite living for 60 more years, Smith never came close to reaching his former heights. What happened?
I had the opportunity to interview Jabbo Smith back in 1981 when he was touring with the show One Mo’ Time. The few quotes included in this article are from that meeting. While happy to talk about the early days, he seemed as baffled as I was that he had not had a prosperous career.

He was born on Dec. 24, 1908 in Pembroke, Georgia as Cladys Smith, named after a cousin whose name was Gladys. As a teenager, he gained the lifelong nickname of Jabbo. His father died when he was four. Two years later his mother, who found it very difficult to both raise her son and make a living, left Jabbo at the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina. As it turned out, it was in some ways an ideal place for the youth to grow up for it had a superlative music program. Jabbo learned both the cornet (not switching to the trumpet until later in the 1930s) and the trombone and he toured as a member of the orphanage’s band starting when he was ten. “They taught everyone in the same room, teaching us a bit of each of the instruments. Trombone was my favorite but, since there were already several trombonists, they handed me a cornet.” However he did not care for the discipline of the school. “I was always trying to get out of there. I ran away every time I got the chance. Once I ran away and played in a band with Eagle Eye Shields in Jacksonville; I was 12 or 13. I played with that group for a few months until they caught me.”

In 1925 the 16-year old was finally successful in leaving the orphanage permanently. “I snuck myself out. I went to Philadelphia where my sister lived and joined Harry Marsh’s band. A little later I went to Atlantic City and joined the band led by my classmate Gus Aiken. Soon afterward, I bumped into Charlie Johnson.” The pianist led Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten, an impressive ensemble that was featured on five record dates during 1925-29. Smith joined his orchestra in the autumn of 1925 and appeared on the second and third sessions during 1927-28. The 18-year old cornetist made his recording debut slightly earlier on two titles with singer Eva Taylor’s Blue Five from February 10, 1927. Two weeks later he recorded with Johnson as part of a tentet that included trumpeters Leonard Davis and Tom Morris, trombonist Charlie Irvis, and Benny Carter who was all of 20. Monette Moore takes vocals on the three numbers and Jabbo can be heard throughout, sounding particularly impressive on “Don’t You Leave Me Here” and “Paradise Wobble.” His modern style contrasted with the older trumpet sound of Morris. Clearly Jabbo was heading for great things.

Also that year, Smith was one of the stars on two numbers with Perry Bradford’s Georgia Strutters, a pickup band that included trombonist Jimmy Harrison and pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith. On November 3, 1927 he subbed for Bubber Miley with the Duke Ellington Orchestra on three numbers including the two released takes of “Black And Tan Fantasy.” Ellington was so impressed that he offered Jabbo a job, but Smith made a costly mistake. He turned Duke down because he thought he would be underpaid! The hot trumpet chair eventually went to Freddy Jenkins.
Back with Charlie Johnson, Smith is in brilliant form on the January 24, 1928 session. His solos on “Charleston Is The Best Dance After All” and “You Ain’t The One” (both exist in two takes) are quite memorable. But his excessive drinking, which made him unreliable and resulted in him sometimes showing up late for shows, became a liability and Johnson fired him from the orchestra.

Jabbo Smith soon joined the pit orchestra of the show Keep Shufflin’. On Mar. 27, 1928 with a quartet called the Louisiana Sugar Babes, he recorded four titles from the show. The unique ensemble was comprised of pianist James P. Johnson, Fats Waller on organ, Garvin Bushell switching between clarinet, alto, and bassoon, and Jabbo playing muted cornet. The laid-back performances are most notable for their restraint and lyricism. “Thou Swell” is easily the best-known song from the production while Bushell’s pioneering jazz bassoon solos on “Persian Rug” and “’Sippi” are historic.

After Keep Shufflin’ folded in Chicago in November 1928, Smith spent the next year playing with a variety of top local bands including those led by Carroll Dickerson, Sammy Stewart, Earl Hines, Erskine Tate, Charles Elgar, and Tiny Parham. He also took part in what must have been very exciting trumpet/cornet battles with Louis Armstrong. Smith apparently lost every time (no one could top Satch) but his adventurous playing impressed the audiences.

1929 was Jabbo Smith’s year. By then the 20-year old had superior technical abilities, a wild and sometimes reckless style filled with death-defying runs, advanced ideas that hint a little at Roy Eldridge (whose emergence was a few years in the future), and a fearless musical personality. With King Oliver and Bix Beiderbecke declining and Henry “Red” Allen at the starting gate, only Smith was chasing Louis Armstrong.

In January the cornetist dominated two songs recorded with a combo headed by banjoist Ikey Robinson. He took an exuberant vocal on “Got Butter On It” and was teamed in the quintet with clarinetist-altoist Omer Simeon. With the success of the Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Seven recordings for Okeh, other labels hoped to duplicate the sales with trumpeters/cornetists of their own. Victor recorded Henry “Red” Allen, Vocalion tried Reuben “River” Reeves, and Brunswick signed Jabbo Smith.

On nine sessions that resulted in 20 selections, Jabbo Smith led the Rhythm Aces which also included Simeon (George James subbed for him on two numbers), Ikey Robinson, Cassino Simpson or Earl Frazier on piano, and Hayes Alvis or Lawson Buford on tuba. “I used pretty much the same band that Ikey did: The trouble now is that many years later I can hear each of my mistakes and can always think of ways I could have played my solos better.”
While Jabbo Smith does overreach at times, occasionally being on the verge of losing control, his range, speed, and complexity on such numbers as “Till Times Get Better,” “Band Box Stomp,” “Sweet And Low Blues,” “Decatur Street Tutti,” and the explosive “Jazz Battle” result in some very stirring playing. His double-time runs behind Simeon’s playing of the melody of “Sweet And Low Blues” almost sounds like bop and he takes a fine trombone solo on “Lina Blues.” In addition, Smith was a very good jazz vocalist both in his phrasing of lyrics (“Till Times Get Better”) and when he scatted. Other memorable Rhythm Aces performances include “Aces Of Rhythm,” “I Got The Stinger,” and “Sau Sha Stomp.”

And then, after the August 22, 1929, session, it stopped. The records did not sell that well, none of the 20 songs caught on as standards, and the Depression nearly destroyed the recording industry. While Louis Armstrong was being featured with big bands and becoming world famous, Jabbo Smith was short-circuiting his career. Beyond his heavy drinking of the era, he chose to stay in the Midwest when the center of music had moved to New York. “Milwaukee was a fine place. I played up there, got a steady gig, liked the city, and just chose to stay. I got married in 1932 and settled there for a long time.” If he had moved to New York or Europe in 1930, Smith’s strong sight-reading abilities and flashy solo style would surely have led to fame, or at least steady work.

There were no recording studios in Milwaukee and Jabbo Smith was off records entirely during 1930-34. While it was formerly thought that Smith might have been the trumpeter in 1931 on a pair of songs that included Duke Ellington and altoist Otto Hardwicke, a session released as by “Trombone Red and his Blue Six,” he denied to me that it was him. While he is on a session by pianist Charles Lavere from 1935 with clarinetist Joe Marsala and drummer Zutty Singleton, his sparse trumpet playing is safe and uneventful. A member of the Claude Hopkins Orchestra during 1936-38, Jabbo only appeared on two sessions with Hopkins. The seven selections (five are vocal features for Beverly White) are routine and disappointing. On February 1, 1938, Jabbo Smith (who was still just 28) led a four-song session of his own, heading an octet. He is heard on three vocals trying in vain to uplift such material as “More Rain, More Rest” and “How Can Cupid Be So Stupid.” His melodic and bland trumpet playing is a disappointment, lacking any fire or excitement.

After working at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with Sidney Bechet, nothing much was heard of Jabbo Smith in the jazz world for over 20 years. He spent a few years playing at an obscure job in Newark, New Jersey and then moved back to Milwaukee in 1944. Although he occasionally led local groups, Smith worked at a day job with Avis Rent-a-Car for 13 years. He missed the New Orleans revival altogether.

In 1961 when the subject of Jabbo Smith came up, Roy Eldridge and pianist Sammy Price made a bet as to whether he was still alive; Price lost the wager. That year, guitarist Marty Grosz and a few Chicago musicians persuaded the 52-year old Jabbo to rehearse with them. In 1984 two LPs were released that were taken from those sessions. The music (which includes clarinetist Frank Chace) is a bit erratic but there are plenty of moments where the rusty trumpeter hints at his past. If he had had the desire and the discipline, a comeback was not out of the question.

But nothing happened and another decade passed. Finally in the early 1970s Jabbo Smith gradually began to return to the scene. He played trombone at a traditional jazz festival in Holland, worked on his trumpet playing and appeared at the IAJRC Festival in 1974 and 1976; one song apiece from the latter were released on collector’s albums. European trad bands discovered and celebrated him even though his playing was streaky. Starting in 1976, Smith recorded for European labels with the Hot Dogs, the South Jazz Band, the New Orleans Joymakers, and (during 1980-83) the Hot Antic Jazz Band. During 1979-82 he sang and played in the musical show One Mo’ Time. Sometimes he sounded on the level of a spirited over-the-hill New Orleans trumpeter, and at other times he fell short of that.

Gradually declining health resulted in Jabbo Smith having to give up playing trumpet after 1983. He continued singing on an irregular basis, including appearing for a week with the Mel Lewis Orchestra at the Village Vanguard and at a few festivals in 1986-87 with a quintet led by avant-garde trumpeter Don Cherry who enjoyed the historic figure’s spirit.

But by the time Jabbo Smith passed away on Jan. 16, 1991 at the age of 82, his prime period was six decades in the past. It had certainly been a strange career. His Retrieval CD 1929-1938 (which actually just has his 1929 recordings) contains an hour of truly hot and exciting jazz, nearly the entire musical legacy of the once-great Jabbo Smith.


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