100 Jazz Profiles
Willie 'The Lion' Smith
1897 - 1973
Pianist. With his derby hat, long cigar and elaborate watch-chain stretched across his ample waistcoat, Willie 'The Lion' Smith cut a memorable figure in Harlem, where he was (along with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller) one of the leading players in the local 'stride' style. He was born William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff, but his stepfather had the easier-to-remember surname of Smith, and Willie changed his name.
Before World War One, he was already recognised in New York as a leading ragtime pianist, and when he returned from the trenches of France, complete with his nickname, awarded for bravery, he was one of the pioneers that changed ragtime into the jazzier genre called stride. In Harlem, he worked at various clubs, including Leroy's, the Rhythm Club, the Hoofer's club and Pod's and Jerry's.
He was also a familiar figure in the cutting contests with other pianists that went on after hours at speakeasies, or at rent parties. In the 1930s, after Prohibition ended, he began working downtown at a number of 52nd Street clubs, and he recorded with a small band called Willie The Lion and his Cubs. His solo recordings from 1939 are often reckoned to be his finest work, but he went on making discs well into the 1960s, some of them including his own spoken comments and repartee, as he demonstrated his playing at the keyboard.
He was a mentor to Waller and later to one or two other younger players such as the record producer Mike Lipskin. In addition to hard-driving stride playing, Smith also wrote and performed pieces that were closer to the novelty piano repertoire, and his compositions such as Echoes of Spring or Rippling Waters are unashamedly 'pretty' rather than overtly jazzy.
Willie 'The Lion' Smith (and George Hoefer): Music on My Mind - the Memoirs of an American Pianist (New York, Da Capo, 1975)
Harlem Joys (Affinity AFS 1032)
Suggested track: Harlem Joys
Willie 'The Lion' Smith at Red Hot Jazz
Short bio, picture and music file links
on radio 3
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