As one of the last living participants in Hartford's exuberant Golden Age of Jazz after World War II — an era when future giants Horace Silver and Gigi Gryce graced the swinging club scene in the North End — pianist Emery Austin Smith is unquestionably one of the city's grand patriarchs of jazz.
Tall, silver-haired with mustache and beard, he has the charismatic bearing and regal presence of a Biblical elder.
But if you hear him play just a couple bars of any tune, you know that for all that patriarchal image he's still got that youthful fire amd quick mind.. .
"Well, I'll tell you, if I'm a patriarch, I'm still learning. It's incessant, man. It goes on and on like the song that never ends. I was practicing just before you called, and was up until 3 a.m. last night in my room with the piano, and I'll be back there as soon as I get through talking to you. I've got to learn as much as I can. Who knows how long anyone is going to be around?" Smith says, sounding just a little bit skeptical about being pigeon-holed into any convenient category, even a reverential one.
That bit of reluctance by Smith, who turns 80 on July 31, might well be because the pianist who's played with jazz titans Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Shavers, Dizzy Gillespie and Archie Shepp —and a youthful stint with R&B pioneer Bullmoose Jackson — is one of those rare musicians who is, as Duke Ellington would say, "beyond category."
In what has become an annual rite of spring in downtown Hartford, Smith demonstrates his skills in a solo piano concert April 29, at 3 p.m. in the Hartford Public Library's free "Baby Grand Jazz" series in the library's atrium.
The Hartford jazz legend's solo piano performance is the dramatic grand finale for the series whose popularity has skyrocketed this season, consistently drawing the biggest turnouts ever for the free Sunday jazz matinees in the downtown library at 500 Main St.
"I love playing there. It's a great venue and I get to see so many family members and old friends I haven't seen in a long time, some driving down from Springfield. Nieces and nephews keep calling me and wanting to know when I'm going to play at the library again," says Smith, a native son and product of Hartford public schools from kindergarten, at what was then the Brackett School, on through Weaver High School, Class of '51.
Hartford and a big, tightly-knit, loving family have always been core elements in Smith's busy life, right alongside his passion for jazz and insatiable hunger for knowledge. He was himself the youngest of eight children, and with his wife of 57 years, Vivian, has raised four boys and two girls in their Hartford home, which is always open to warm, congenial gatherings of friends and family.
Smith might well have been born in a far less jazz-friendly place than Hartford was in the 1940s and '50s, but for the fact that his parents moved here in 1919 from Americus, Ga. His father landed a job as a bottler in a Coca Cola plant, then on Allyn Street, and the Smith family established deep roots in the capital city, including devotional ties to Union Baptist Church.
"My parents came here because where they were living (Sumter County, Americus, Ga.) was Ku Klux Klan country. It was really bad. The Klan was lynching people, hurting people. Black folks weren't getting a good education, so they came here to Hartford," Smith says.
Born in 1932 at Mt. Sinai Hospital, then located on Capitol Avenue, Smith grew up in a loving, music-filled home. It rang with the sound of a $600 Underwood & Sons piano (then a small fortune, which the family actually got for free through a stroke of good fortune) and a player piano that pumped out music from a mini-library of piano rolls featuring solos by such rhythm kings as Fats Waller and James P. Johnson. There was a wind-up record player and a decent stack of jazz 78s purchased by Emery's older brothers who were into jazz.
Smith's fatherbecame a deacon at Union Baptist Church, so little Emery was immersed in the hymns and spirituals of the church. Mixed with that birthright blessing were his rigorous classical music piano lessons and early signs of a pre-adolescent yearning to learn about jazz.
Emery got hooked on the Jimmy Lunceford Orchestra, a swinging big band that played at the Foot Guard Hall on High Street, once a thriving entertainment center for the city. Back then, the Foot Guard rocked with big band sounds, including that of Count Basie, another icon he added to his expanding jazz pantheon.
Emery's mother took him to the State Theaterto see Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Band, an exciting event hastening his boyhood awakening to the seductive pleasures of jazz. At the State, which was located on Village Street, he first saw keyboard heroes likeNat "King" Cole, among others. (Coincidentally, years later, pianist Isaac "Ike" Cole, one of Nat's younger brothers, asked Smith to sub for him with prominent touring bands, among the many opportunities to go on the road that the Hartford pianist turned down.)
A good part of what has made Smith a premier pianist is that he had the good fortune to be born in Hartford and grow up on Branford Street during that Golden Age of Jazz when the North End was alive with jazz clubs, teeming with a pool of local talent and blessed with large, enthusiastic audiences who loved jazz with the abandon that future generations would lavish on rock or hip-hop.
These North End nightspots — and not just the famous Club Sundown on Windsor Street where jazz great Stan Getz famously discovered Horace Silver — were swinging and drawing not just hip but huge turnouts. . Clubs were jumping all along Albany Avenue — watering holes like The Reverie, The Golden Oak, Al's Music Bar and The Red Ash — and elsewhere as well, including, quite famously, The Subway on Main Street. There were not just one but two swinging Elks Clubs, one on Canton Street and another on Bellevue Street, and even a North End Cotton Club, right across the street from Club Sundown.
Future jazz giants like Silver, a Norwalk native, and Gryce, a student at Boston Conservatory who had a sister living in town, became revered among the city's jazz faithful back in the day when Smith was a bebop besotted, gifted kid itching to play in the clubs.
Everyone knew, of course, that super players like Silver and Gryce would be moving on to the big time, the NBA of jazz in New York City. But that really didn't matter all that much since the North End itself had a cadre of hard-swinging, Hartford-based musicians playing for packed, excited audiences out on the town, looking for a good time and finding it in jazz.
As a kid, Smith started hanging out in the club scene and learning from an older buddy and fellow pianist Norman Macklin, his senior by eight years or so. Macklin, who started out as a trumpeter, would become one of the city's best known pianists, and in his later years, a respected elder statesman from that post-war era right up until his death at 83 in 2007.
"It was the greatest time for jazz and everybody dug the music," Smith says, explaining that those vibrant audiences, who were so moved by the music. "Everybody worked, but when it came to Thursday and, particularly, Friday and Saturday nights that's when everybody started swinging and hit the clubs. Everybody would dress down and go out to the clubs.
"You started playing a song, and everybody knew exactly what the song was. They were totally into it. It felt good to play there because people knew who you were. Even out on the street in the North End people knew you and would come up to you and speak to you because you were a musician and they had heard you play in the club the night before," he says of the energizing link then between audience and performer. It was an existential bond heightened by jazz, a spontaneous music so celebratory, soulful and so much in the moment.
The club scene included not just name artists coming to town from Boston or New York — like Charlie "Bird" Parker ascending at Club Sundown — but also the rich lode of homegrown Hartford players. Among these were a triumvirate of Hartford greats who took young Smith in hand and taught him about improvisation.
His guides to the Promised Land of modern jazz were Harold Holt, a saxophonist who could go toe-to-toe in cutting contests with even such famous heavyweight sax players of the day as the powerhouse Illinois Jacquet; the preternaturally gifted trumpeter/composer Clyde Wesley Board; and saxophonist Percy Nelson Sr., a mythic reed player, music savant, éminence grise on the local scene.
Back then in that pre-Civil Rights Movement era, there was little socializing between blacks and whites in Hartford. Racism was an evil, oppressive force not just in the South, where it was enshrined in the legal system, but also, if less overtly yet still perniciously, in Northern cities as well.
In a major social break with the racism of the day, white jazz fans, even from the then lily-white burbs, made the trip to the North End clubs where they were welcome and could dig some of the best, most happening sounds in town. Some white jazz musicians, such as Hartford's alto saxophonist Jack O'Connor, the blind pianist Dave MacKay and other first-rate players, sat-in with black musicians in the clubs, and much great music was made.
But this was also a time when even the musicians' union in Hartford, as elsewhere across the nation, still maintained separate memberships for white and black or, as African Americans were then called, "colored" musicians
"Jazz binds everybody together," Smith explains of the music's historic role as an antidote to toxic racism in America. You could see that democratic principle exhibited nightly in the North End club scene both on and off the bandstand where lasting bi-racial friendships weren't uncommon.
Besides family, home and jazz, two prime elements in Smith's life have been his industriousness and studiousness, character traits that allowed him to hold down a full-time day job with the post office while somehow managing to sustain a successful, full-scale jazz career. Before retiring from the postal service after 30 years, it wasn't unusual for Smith to play six nights a week without missing a single day's work at the office.
"Music was my main gig. The post office was a secondary job even though I worked at it full-time and never took time off. That's why I wouldn't do any drinking or do any drugs or horsing around. I didn't have time for that foolishness. And besides I had a full life of studying music, studying piano," he says.
Deliberately turning down a number of tempting opportunities over the years to go on the road, Smith chose, instead, to stay closer to home, making a distinctive artistic mark for himself in the region. There were also many significant gigs in Manhattan and elsewhere, which also earned him much respect, particularly among the many celebrated musicians he worked for. All the while, he was constantly honing his style, inspired by such modern keyboard titans as Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.
"I sure don't have any regrets about not going on the road. There wasn't enough money to be made on the road to take care of a family. There never is, unless you were with a group like the Ellington Orchestra, the Basie Band or Guy Lombardo.
"I've played more nights and more piano and more hours professionally than any of those guys who traveled on the road for years, itinerant musicians going from band to band. I've played music the Emery Smith way. I have no regrets," he says quite proudly.
A classic autodidact, he's a voracious reader of history and philosophy, among other varied intellectual interests far afield from music. A word-obsessed, self-taught scholar, he devours dictionaries and thesauruses as a way to expand the writing skills he's used for jazz publications like Coda, a Canadian jazz journal, and the Hartford Jazz Society's old newsletter called The Swinger.
When Borders Books & Music shut down its mega-store in Farmington, Smith, a devout weekend regular, lost access to those well-stocked shelves of non-fiction works that he regularly perused before buying yet another bundle of books to absorb back home in the tranquility of his music room.
Over the years, the perpetual music student has studied with such teachers and pianists as Hartford's Ray Cassarino (a truly magnificent pianist) and the noted jazz pedagogue, John Mehegan.
Even as 80 approaches, Smith sounds less like a patriarch than like that insatiably curious Hartford kid of nearly 70 years ago who, even back then, felt that he was destined to become a jazz piano player. It's his life's calling, he has discovered, with no expiration date because there's always more to learn, more to hear and more to think about in his jazz world without end.
"I don't think about turning 80. I haven't even reached 30 yet," he jokes
"Age doesn't really matter.I don't fight time. People worry about time. Time this, time that. Time takes care of itself.
"As for me, there's never a time when I'm not thinking about music. It goes on all the time in my head. I even dream about jazz when I sleep because that's what life is — one big sphere of music."
EMERY AUSTIN SMITH presents a solo piano concert Sunday, April 29, at 3 p.m. as the season finale for the Hartford Public Library's free "Baby Grand Jazz" series in the library atrium, 500 Main St. Information: http://www.hplct.org and 860-695-6300.