Pasadena and its environs have had a jazz presence since at least the 1950s, when artist Jirayr Zorthian hosted a clothing-optional party for Charlie Parker in 1952. A few years later, youngbloods like vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, bassists Albert Stinson and Herbie Lewis, drummers Mike Romero and Jim Keltner, and saxophonists Richard and Pete Aplanalp were developing their own jazz profiles. Through his decades of rock-steady playing and teaching, 71-year-old Altadena bassist Putter Smith is one of the Pasadena jazz patriarchs.
Putter (his given name is Patrick) is well known for his warm sound, strong support, and lyrical contributions to improvisations on song forms. As the younger brother of the late bassist Carson Smith, founding member of the high-profile Chico Hamilton Quintet, Putter had access and entrée to many of the great jazz players in Los Angeles.
One of them was piano virtuoso Walter Norris. "We played together off-and-on for 50 years," Smith said, at Norris' passing in 2011. "He had the technique to play like Art Tatum in the '50s but his own playing was very different from everyone else. It was 'out' — kind of like Cecil Taylor played back then, but he had his own chord choices. As the music got farther and farther out harmonically, I just tried to be the center of the music."
"He was my biggest influence as a working musician," Smith added. That influence included a template for character. "He was a truly noble human being. He gave his life to the music, and never shirked what he felt was his duty. Walter spent his entire life trying to improve his grasp of the music." The same can be said of Putter Smith.
The Novel Café on Colorado Boulevard is known for its thick-cut French toast, Crispy Organic Chicken and Seafood Pasta. But on the weekends, diners have the added bonus of live music. Like Pinocchio's on Lake Street, the Novel is where Putter and his wife, singer VR Smith, are most often heard.
Over the years, the bassist was heard with Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan and the Manhattan Transfer, to name a few. In the 1980s, Putter could regularly be heard at the late, lamented Dino's, at 2055 E. Colorado. He played there with the great pianist, composer and orchestrator Alan Broadbent. Putter once summed up the long-running collaboration and symbiotic exchange with Broadbent: "Alan has been a driving force for me in my music. His unique combination of an extraordinary physical gift, musical intelligence and the will to continually extend both is awe-inspiring."
VR (for Victoria Rose) grew up in East Los Angeles and singers like Anita O'Day, June Christy and Chris Connor were continually in her ear. "My family had the radio on all the time," she said. "I used to go to sleep with the radio on so I've got many, many tunes in my head." Those singers were her standards, until she heard Billie Holiday.
"She's my favorite," added VR. "Her phrasing is unbelievably wonderful, her notes are outstanding and she's a musical genius. She just says it."
After singing in a congregational choir for a dozen years, she made her professional debut with the band she co-leads with Putter. That group was a fixture at Café Beaujolais in Eagle Rock for years. The personnel has remained fairly stable and Friday at the Novel, VR and Putter will be joined by tenor saxophonist Chuck Manning, guitarist Dave Koonse, trombonist/bassist Isla Eckinger and drummer Jake Reed.
In 2011, pianist Jim Szilagyi, the band's regular pianist until his recent passing, said of VR two years ago: "Her time is perfect, she doesn't phrase like anyone else." He laughed as he added: "And how many singers do you know can sing all of the Thelonious Monk tunes?"
What: VR Smith Group
Where: Novel Café, 1713 Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: Friday, Feb. 28
More info: (800) 838-3006, www.novelcafe.com
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.