Willie “The Lion” Smith was born William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith on November 25, 1897 in Goshen, New York. His biological father Frank Bertholoff was a light-skinned playboy who loved his liquor, girls, and gambling. His mother, Ida, threw Frank out of the house when William was two years old. After his father died, his mother married John Smith, a master mechanic from Paterson, New Jersey and Smith was added at age three.
In 1907, the family moved to Newark, New Jersey and when he was six discovered his mother’s piano in the basement and she taught him the melodies she knew. His uncle taught him to dance and subsequently he won a dance contest. It was at this time he decided to concentrate on music.
He attended the Baxter School, but after a theft incident involving a dime to see a traveling road show, he was transferred to Morton School in the sixth grade and then went on to Barringer High School, then Newark High, and attempted swimming, skating, track, basketball, sledding, cycling, and boxing to get the ladies attention. He also hung out with prizefighters like Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Gene Tunney and others, belong to a gang and eventually played piano in the back room of one of the members club.
Willie won an upright piano in a newspaper ad contest guessing the number of dots were in a printed circle. From that day forth, he sat down at the piano and played songs he heard in the clubs and saloons, including Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag by, Cannonball Rag by Joe Northrup, Black and White Rag by George Botsford, and Don’t Hit That Lady Dressed in Green, She’s Got Good Booty and Baby, Let Your Drawers Hang Low. By the early 1910s he was playing in New York City and Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Serving in World War I and seeing action in France, Willie played drums with the African-American regimental band led by Tim Brymn and played on the regimental basketball team. Legend has it that his nickname “The Lion” came from his reported bravery while serving as a heavy artillery gunner and he was a decorated veteran of the Buffalo Soldiers 350th Field Artillery regiment. Following the war he returned to work in Harlem clubs and at rent parties as a soloist, in bands or accompanying blues singers like Mamie Smith. Smith and his contemporaries James P. Johnson and Fats Waller developed a new, more sophisticated piano style later called “stride”.
By the 1940s his music found appreciation with a wider audience, and he toured North America and Europe up to 1971. He was at the taking of the jazz photograph A Great Day in Harlem in 1958, however, he was sitting down resting when the selected shot was taken, leaving him out of the final picture. The Lion was also an educator teaching privately and his students included such notable names as Mel Powell, Brooks Kerr, and Mike Lipskin. Although working in relative obscurity, he was a “musician’s musician”, influencing countless other musicians including Duke Ellington, George Gershwin, and Artie Shaw.
Duke Ellington demonstrated his admiration of the pianist by composing and recording the highly regarded “Portrait of the Lion” in 1939. In his later years, Newark, New Jersey honored him with Willie “The Lion” Smith Day, and Orange County, New York also proclaimed September 18th as Willie “The Lion” Smith Day, that was also the date of the first Goshen Jazz Festival.
Willie “The Lion” Smith passed away at the age of 79 on April 18, 1973 in New York City.
More Posts: piano
Amos White was born on November 6, 1889 in Charleston, South Carolina and grew up an orphan playing in the Jenkins Orphanage band in his teens. In addition, he traveled with minstrel shows and circuses.
After attending Benedict College, he returned to the orphanage to take a teaching position. During World War I, White played in the 816th Pioneer Infantry Band in France, then settled in New Orleans, Louisiana after the war.
Working as a typesetter, he played jazz in his spare time, working with Papa Celestin and Fate Marable among others. In the 1920s, he appeared on many records by blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Lizzie Miles, and played in the Alabamians. In 1928, he became the leader of the Georgia Minstrels.
In the 1930s, White moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he played with his own group and with local dance groups, including Felipe Lopez’s. Later in the decade he relocated to Oakland, California, where he played locally into the 1960s in marching bands.
Trumpeter Amos White passed away on July 2, 1980 in Oakland, California.
More Posts: trumpet
Lovie Austin was born Cora Calhoun on September 19, 1887 in Chattanooga, Tennessee and grew up with eight brothers and sisters. She studied music theory at Roger Williams University and Knoxville College which was uncommon for African American woman and jazz musicians alike during the time.
In 1923, Lovie Austin decided to make Chicago, Illinois her home, living and working there for the rest of her life. She was often seen elegantly dressed, racing around town in her Stutz Bearcat with leopard skin upholstery. Her early career was in vaudeville, playing piano and performing in variety acts. Accompanying blues singers was Lovie’s specialty, and can be heard on recordings by Ma Rainey – Moonshine Blues, Ida Cox – Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues, Ethel Waters – Craving Blues, and Alberta Hunter – Sad ‘n’ Lonely Blues.
She led her own band, the Blues Serenaders, which usually included trumpeters Tommy Ladnier, Bob Shoffner, Natty Dominique, or Shirley Clay on cornet, Kid Ory or Albert Wynn on trombone, and Jimmy O’Bryant or Johnny Dodds on clarinet, along with banjo and occasional drums. The Blues Serenaders developed their own unique sound within the jazz genre, straying away from the typical jazz band paradigm.
Austin worked with many other top jazz musicians of the 1920s, including Louis Armstrong. They worked on a song together that was called Heebie Jeebies. Her skills as songwriter can be heard in the classic Down Hearted Blues, co-written with Alberta Hunter. Singer Bessie Smith turned the song into a hit in 1923. She was also a session musician for Paramount Records and recorded with the Blues Serenaders in 1923.
When the classic blues craze waned in the early 1930s, Lovie became the musical director for the Monogram Theater in Chicago where all the T.O.B.A. acts played. She worked there for 20 years and during wartime, she was reported to be working as a security guard at a defense plant to support herself.
After World War II she became a pianist at Jimmy Payne’s Dancing School at Penthouse Studios, and performed and recorded occasionally.
In 1961, nearly forty years after participating in her first recordings, Lovie recorded Alberta Hunter with Lovie Austin’s Blues Serenaders, as part of Riverside Records’ “Living Legends” series, produced by radio WHAT-FM disc jockey and jazz critic Chris Albertson. Austin’s songs included Sweet Georgia Brown, C Jam Blues and Gallon Stomp.
Pianist Lovie Austin, who is cited as Mary Lou Williams greatest influence and one of the best pianists during the Harlem Renaissance, retired in 1962 and passed away on July 10, 1972 in Chicago.
More Posts: piano
Wilton Crawley was born on July 18, 1900 in Virginia with his family moving to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Some of his musical influences may be traced back to Virginia and its many farms and barnyards with cackles and clucks like a chicken, oinks like a pig, and neighs like a goat that he . It was in Philadelphia that along with his reed-playing brother Jimmy that they formed their first band. During the ’20s and ’30s, the clarinetist found success with a variety act featuring his singing and playing. Though not the most versatile musician he had a sound and style that utilized weird speech-like sound effects and extended use of slap tonguing, sometimes filling out whole lines of a solo with obnoxious little pops.
Between 1927 and 1930 Wilton recorded his own compositions for OKeh and Victor Records, working with Paul Barbarin, Lonnie Johnson, Henry “Red” Allen, Pops Foster, Luis Russell, Jelly Roll Morton, Eddie Heywood and Eddie Lang among others. After splitting with Morton in the 1930s he toured England and after the death of his father and his friend guitarist Eddie Lang, his personal problems derailed his career and slipped into oblivion.
His most famous pieces include Crawley Clarinet Moan, She’s Forty With Me, Put a Flavor to Love, Futuristic Blues and Irony Daddy Blues. Much of this music reveals his attempts to recreate jazz sounds from other instruments, particularly the muted trumpet effects that might have been done by an artist such as Bubber Miley. While some of this sound effect activity have may influenced Anthony Braxton, he may have more in common with the clarinetists who worked with Spike Jones or even later rock showmen like Arthur Brown. Some of the membership in his ensembles such as Wilton Crawley & His Orchestra or the Washboard Rhythm Kings remains unknown, however, banjoist Johnny St. Cyr and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson show up in his bands.
It is unfortunate that many of the recordings originally done under his own name have all been reissued in various Jelly Roll Morton retrospectives, as he went on to become a lasting legend of early jazz while the clarinetist went into obscurity. Clarinetist, composer, contortionist and vaudevillian Wilton Crawley passed away in 1948 in Maryland.
More Posts: clarinet
Louis Stanley Hooper was born on May 18, 1894 in North Buxton, Ontario, Canada but was raised in Ypsilanti, Michigan and studied piano at the Detroit Conservatory, playing locally in dance orchestras in the 1910s. Around 1920 he moved to New York City and recorded frequently with Elmer Snowden and Bob Fuller in the middle of the decade. He was known to perform with both of them in Harlem as well as with other ensembles.
Lou served for some time as the house pianist for Ajax Records, accompanying many blues singers on record, including Martha Copeland, Rosa Henderson, Lizzie Miles, Monette Moore and Ethel Waters. He was a participant in the Blackbirds revue of 1928.
In 1932 Hooper returned to Canada, where he played in Mynie Sutton’s dance band, the Canadian Ambassadors. Working locally as a soloist and in ensembles for the next two decades, he was brought back into the limelight by the Montreal Vintage Music Society in 1962.
Lou recorded a two-LP set with Bill Coleman titled UK LIve:Satin Doll, Vol. 1 & 2 in 1967 and released an album as a leader of ragtime piano tunes in 1973 titled Lou Hooper, Piano.
Wearing the educator hat, he taught at the University of Prince Edward Island late in his life and appeared regularly on CBC television in Halifax. Pianist Lou Hooper passed away on September 17, 1977 in Charlestown, Prince Edward Island. His papers, which include unpublished compositions and an autobiography, are now held at the National Library of Canada in Ottawa.
More Posts: piano