by Jeff Aarons | edited by James Anderson
Johnny Smith is a living legend in the world of jazz guitar. Smith's virtuosity has remained almost unparalleled in the history of jazz solo guitar and he will always be acknowledged by many as the quintessential, traditional jazz guitar soloist.
Representative of the cool jazz genre, his playing is characterized by a graceful, melodic touch, using innovative chord inversions and displaying virtuosic skill with rapidly ascending lines and arpeggios, performed with pianistic fluidity.
Working with the NBC Orchestra and arranging and performing music with institutions such as the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Philharmonic for eight years, he developed a masterful knowledge of music theory which he would later become evident through his recording successes in the 1950s.
Smith's best selling album came in 1952 with Moonlight in Vermont and was succeeded by a number of releases under the Roost record label, some of which he recorded with Stan Getz.
Virtually retiring from the jazz scene to run a music store in Colorado in the early 1960s, he designed Guild, Gibson, Heritage, and Benedetto signature model guitars over the decades. Testament to his influence, his Gibson Johnny Smith Double model became the first ever guitar to feature a floating humbucking pickup, which has since become an industry standard.
Smith was born John Henry Smith, Jr. in Birmingham, Alabama on June 25th, 1922. During the Great Depression, Smith's family migrated from Birmingham and lived briefly in several cities before settling in Portland , Maine in 1935. His father, John, was an able five-stringed banjo player and also had a passion for the guitar. As a boy, Smith frequented pawnshops, teaching himself to play the guitar in return for keeping the guitars in tune for the shop owners. He demonstrated a natural ability for the instrument, rapidly learning to finger the notes and chords with astonishing finesse.
By the age of thirteen, Smith was teaching others to play the guitar, despite his family not being able to afford to buy him his own instrument. One day, a student of Smith bought a new guitar and generously gave him his old guitar, becoming the first instrument that Smith ever owned.
Smith joined Uncle Lem and the Mountain Boys, a local Hillbilly band which performed at dances and fairs around Maine during the night . He earned four dollars for a performance. As his talent was quickly recognized, Smith dropped out of high school to concentrate on playing the guitar. He was influenced by the early guitar legends such as Charlie Christian, Les Paul and Django Reinhart, influences which reflected in his long and adventurous solos.
Smith showed a passion for flying, befriending a number of aviators in the United States Army Air Corps who recommended that he enlist with them to become a military pilot. However, because of imperfect vision in his left eye, his aspirations of becoming a pilot diminished. Now confronted with the choice of joining the Air Corps band or being sent to mechanic's school during World War II, Smith opted to join the military band in 1942. He was forced to learn to play the cornet within a short period before passing the examination with flying colors and being promoted to the position of first cornetist.
Smith developed an interest in jazz after listening to the radio and concentrated on expanding his jazz repertoire. He departed from the Mountain Boys at the age of 18 and formed a jazz trio called The Airport Boys. After being transferred to the 8th Air Corps in Alabama , Smith was ordered to form a jazz quartet. As part of the quartet, Smith attracted a significant following. Glen Miller, a captain in the Air Corps at the time, attempted to recruit Smith for his own orchestra.
After the war and his discharge from the Air Force in 1946, Smith returned to Maine to work for the NBC local affiliate as a staff musician. He continued to perform in clubs at night as a guitarist, concurrently playing trumpet for the Portland Vaudeville Theater pit band. In 1946, he met Django Reinhardt when he came to the United States and learned his solos from record.
In 1947 he moved to New York City and began performing on many NBC radio and TV shows and made several successful appearances with NBC's orchestra, the New York Philharmonic orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra. During his eight years with the NBC orchestra, he worked as a guitarist, trumpeter, arranger and composer. This experience was fundamental to his development and proficiency as a guitarist, gaining an advanced knowledge of music theory which allowed him to sight read a diversity of pieces with orchestras and other ensembles.
A regular performer at the Birdland jazz club from the late 1940s, Smith began to form his own ensembles with Stan Getz. His breakthrough came in 1952 when he was signed to Teddy Reig's Roost record label and recorded the album Moonlight in Vermont in March of that year. The song itself was originally written by John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf in 1943. Moonlight in Vermont , which features saxophonists Stan Getz and Zoot Sims became his most critically acclaimed album and was cited by Down Beat magazine as one of the top jazz records for 1952. From the mellow Moonlight in Vermont and Stars Fell on Alabama to the upbeat Jaguar, the album demonstrated his virtuosity and flexibility in playing, leading Smith to undoubtedly become one of the most versatile and influential guitarists of the 1950s.
After the Moonlight in Vermont album became a best-selling album, Smith became a commanding presence in the world of jazz guitar. He subsequently released a succession of ground breaking LPs with the Johnny Smith Quartet on the Roost label (later merged into Roulette), including In a Sentimental Mood (1954), Annotations of The Muses (1955) and The New Johnny Smith Quartet (1956). Most of these albums featured solo guitar or a trio, with Smith supported by two musicians, playing arrangements he had written himself.
In 1955, Smith composed and recorded his most famous composition, Walk Don't Run, written during a recording session as a counter-melody to the chord changes of Softly, As in the Morning Sunrise . The song would later be covered by Chet Atkins and in September 1960, the Ventures reached #2 on the Billboard Top 100 for a week with their version of Smith's classic tune.
In 1962, Smith recorded The Man with the Blue Guitar (1962) and The Sound of Johnny Smith Guitar (1962). At the pinnacle of his career, having set a benchmark with his virtuosity, Smith became more reclusive and withdrew from jazz scene in the early 1960s.
He opened a music store in Colorado, having lived in the state since 1958 to raise his daughter after the death of his second wife. However, he continued to play at local nightclubs and give seminars and continued to make the occasional recording for the Verve label. In 1967, Smith recorded Johnny Smith under the Verve label, demonstrating his beautiful chord melody and innovative use of chord inversions and open voicings to cover the Beatles classics Michelle and Yesterday.
His last known recording was Legends in 1994, released on the Concord Records label with George van Eps. In this recording, Smith captures the essence of his earlier solo work, in his dark yet beautiful interpretation of Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight. Since, Mosaic Records has continued to republish many recordings in his catalogue, issuing many of them in a 8CD set.
Testament to his success as a jazz guitarist, in 1955, Smith formed an agreement with the Guild Guitar Company and designed a guitar for them. Smith sent the company his drawing and specifications and as a result they began manufacturing the Guild Johnny Smith Award model, although they modified it to Smith's distaste.
After his retirement in 1961, Smith was paid a visit by Gibson at his home in Colorado Springs and designed a guitar to his own specifications, with only minimal cosmetic input from Gibson. As a result, Gibson commenced production of the Gibson Johnny Smith model which became a major commercial success. The Gibson Johnny Smith Double model demonstrated that Smith's immense talent at playing transpired into his designing. The pioneering Gibson Johnny Smith model became the first guitar to feature a floating humbucking pickup, which has since become an industry standard.
Smith also drew upon classic designs from the 1930s, reviving the distinctive X-braced top, incorporating several ergonomic and architectural refinements to enhance the playability of the instrument and its sustain and tone. Smith felt constrained by the standard 1 11/16 nut so brought back the 1 3/4" fretboard design, used by many finger-style guitarists of the 1930s and slimmed down the thickness of the body to make it easier to hold.
In 1989, however, Gibson relocated its headquarters to Nashville , Tennessee and several of the former employees in Kalamazoo , Michigan stayed behind, bought up the former Gibson factory and established Heritage Guitars. Smith agreed to begin producing the guitar under the Heritage firm, which began producing the guitar as the Heritage Johnny Smith model. Despite the move, Gibson continued to produce a Johnny Smith designed guitar, the Gibson LeGrand.
Later, Smith agreed to endorse the Guild Guitars model once again during the time it was affiliated with Fender and supervised by Bob Benedetto. However, the Guild Johnny Smith Award model ceased production in 2006 when Benedetto departed from the Fender company.
Smith's virtuosity has remained almost unparalleled in the history of jazz solo guitar and will always be acknowledged by many as the quintessential, traditional jazz guitar soloist. His playing is characterized by his graceful, melodic touch, demonstrating his mastery of chordal inversions and rapidly ascending lines, often using exotic bass tones, masterful double stops and novel embellishments. His closed-position chord voicings are reminiscent of Reinhardt, but more commonly have a diatonic rather than chromatic tonality.
Technically, Smith's guitar solos were performed with "orchestral" or "pianistic" fluidity, a composite of perfectly executed arpeggios, tasteful chromatic lines, diminished and whole tone scales, and other altered lines that would artfully glide over the melodic framework of the tune and resolve back to either major 7ths, minor 9ths, dominant 7th, 9th, 13th or even plain major triads.
Despite his vast, awesome arsenal of chord inversions, Smith was not afraid to use plain vanilla major chords when necessary but often utilized a voicing of the chord to reveal more of an ethereal ambience such as dropping the 3rd or adding a 9th. Even his early recordings such as Sophisticated Lady, demonstrate his incredible speed, accuracy and innovative articulation of chord melody excursions with single lines on tunes such as Autumn in New York and The Boy Next Store.
With his melodic chord inversions and imaginative soloing, Smith has set a gold standard in jazz guitar playing which many contemporary jazz guitarists and serious students aspire to emulate. He began to make an impact amongst his contemporaries from his very earliest work and even inspired Joe Pass , Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and Tal Farlow. Smith has had a vast influence upon many of the top guitarists in the jazz genre today including Jimmy Bruno, Robert Conti, Pat Martino and Jim Hall. His technique and beautiful chord melody voicings have also influenced cross-genre guitarists such as Eric Johnson.
Studying Smith's accomplished performances will provide the student with an insight on how to approach the guitar with a compositional, almost architectural perfection, but with passion, and the highest level of aesthetics. Mel Bay has published a book examining Smith's use of chords, scales, arpeggios and practical theory application which is an informative jazz resource to studying the theoretical aspects of his work.