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Willie Smith (alto saxophonist)

Willie Smith (alto saxophonist) American musician

American musician
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro American musician
Countries United States of America
Occupations Musician Clarinetist Saxophonist Jazz musician
Type Music
Gender male
Birth 25 November 1910 (Charleston, Charleston County, South Carolina, U.S.A.)
Death 7 March 1967 (Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, California, U.S.A.)
Education Fisk University
The details

William McLeish Smith (November 25, 1910 – March 7, 1967) was one of the major alto saxophone players of the swing era. He also played clarinet and sang.

Early life

Smith was born in Charleston, South Carolina, but raised in Cleveland, Ohio. His first instrument was clarinet and his education was in chemistry. He received his chemistry degree from Fisk University.

Later life and career

In 1929 Smith became an alto saxophonist for Jimmie Lunceford's band, becoming one of the main stars in the group. In 1940 he led his own quintet as a side project. His success with Lunceford had lost its charms by 1942 as he now wanted more pay and less travel. Smith moved to Charlie Spivak for a year and was in the navy for another year. He then switched to Harry James's orchestra, where he made more money, and stayed with him for seven years. After that he worked with Duke Ellington and Billy May. He was also part of the Gene Krupa Trio, and can be heard on the 1952 live Verve album The Drum Battle, part of the Jazz at the Philharmonic series (battle is with Buddy Rich). In 1954 he returned to Harry James's band. Added to all this he was involved in Jazz at the Philharmonic and worked with Nat King Cole and Charlie Barnet.

He died of cancer on March 7, 1967, in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 56.

Playing style and legacy

Jazz critic John S. Wilson described Smith as "one of the triumvirate of great jazz alto saxophonists before Charlie Parker arrived. The other two were Johnny Hodges, who had a fat, luscious tone, and Benny Carter, a model of clean, pure-toned playing. Stylistically, Smith fell between Carter and Hodges for he combined some of Carter's clarity and singing directness with a variant of Hodges' gut sound."


With Jimmie Lunceford

  • Stomp It Off (1934-1935 recordings, GRP Records, 1992 compilation)
  • Lunceford Special (Columbia Records, 1939-1940 recordings, ca. 1971, 2001 reissues)

With Louis Bellson

  • Skin Deep (Norgran, 1953)
  • Journey Into Love (Norgran, 1954)
  • Drumorama! (Verve, 1957)
  • Music, Romance and Especially Love (Verve, 1957)

With Dizzy Gillespie

  • Jazz Recital (Norgran, 1955)

With Harry James

  • Harry James And His Orchestra 1948-49 (Big Band Landmarks – Vol. X & XI, 1969)
  • Wild About Harry! (Capitol Records – ST 874, 1957)
  • The New James (Capitol Records – ST 1037, 1958)
  • Harry's Choice! (Capitol Records – ST 1093, 1958)
  • Harry James and His New Swingin' Band (MGM, 1959)
  • Harry James...Today! (MGM, 1960)
  • Requests On-The-Road (MGM, 1961)
  • The Spectacular Sound of Harry James (MGM, 1961)
  • Harry James Plays Neal Hefti (MGM, 1961)

With Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich

  • The Drum Battle (Verve, 1952 [1960])
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