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Doin’ the Chameleon
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Amongst the many notable jazz anniversaries of recent months, one important one has been pretty much universally overlooked. December 2008 was the centenary of a trumpet legend with whom jazz history has been particularly careless. He was lost, found and lost and found again – so it’s almost fitting that his centenary went by unnoticed. Even in death, he’s an elusive character.
His name was Jabbo Smith, and, at the peak of his powers and the height of his celebrity, he was regarded by many as the only serious challenge to Louis Armstrong’s position as the greatest trumpet player of them all. But just over a decade later, he had slid out of the limelight and was all but forgotten.
Born in Georgia in December 1908, Jabbo Smith was christened Cladys to complement the name of a cousin, Gladys, who was just a few days older. His mother, who played the church organ, struggled to raise him by herself. Eventually, when Jabbo was six, she was forced to hand him over to the care of the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina. This institution supported itself by teaching the children to play music and then sending its student bands all over the country, to all the major cities. Jabbo quickly mastered trumpet and trombone and was duly sent out on tour from an early age. He invariably used these excursions as a launchpad for an escape bid..
When he was 14 years old, he ran away and remained free for three months, during which time he worked with a professional band in Florida. Two years later, he left the orphanage for good and headed for his half-sister’s home in Philadelphia. There, he immediately found work.
In 1925, at the age of just 17, he was playing in one of the most popular bands of the day, the Charlie Johnson band in New York – having already made his recording debut with no less a bandleader than Clarence Williams.
Jabbo – whose nickname came from an Indian character in a William S Hart western – was already beginning to be regarded as something of a sensation when he replaced Bubber Miley for the Duke Ellington band’s November 1927 recordings of Black and Tan Fantasy. So impressed was Ellington with Jabbo’s playing that he offered him a job. Happy with the Charlie Johnson band and unimpressed by the money being offered, Jabbo turned him down – a move which he may not have regretted, but subsequent generations of his admirers undoubtedly have.
He went on, in 1928, to join Fats Waller, James P Johnson and Garvin Bushell in the band playing for the Broadway show Keep Shufflin’ – the results can be heard on the four numbers this band, known as the Louisiana Sugar Babies, recorded together.
Keep Shufflin’ closed suddenly in Chicago in 1929 when its backer, Arnold Rothstein, notorious as the mobster who had fixed the 1919 baseball World Series, was the victim of a gangland murder. Jabbo may have found himself stranded in the Windy City, but the show’s impromptu closing had fortunate results for jazz recording history: the Chicago-based Brunswick Record Company offered him the chance to record 19 sides designed to compete with Louis Armstrong’s hugely successful Hot Five and Hot Seven records, which were making money by the bucket-load for the rival Okeh label.
For what became the definitive Jabbo Smith sides, Jabbo not only led the band, which was assembled by the banjo player Ikey Robinson and christened the Rhythm Aces, but he also wrote all the numbers and sang on many of them – in his distinctive scat style. He was still only 20, and his youthful energy simply explodes out of tracks such as Sau-Sha Stomp, Take Your Time and Boston Skuffle.
Not only that, but his style of playing is dazzling. He was technically brilliant, completely at ease playing in the upper register and able to deliver one fantastic break after another. In 1955, the bass player Milt Hinton was quoted as saying: “Jabbo was as good as Louis then. He was the Dizzy Gillespie of that era. He played rapid-fire passages while Louis was melodic and beautiful.” Another trumpet great who was around at the same time as both Jabbo and Louis was Doc Cheatham who said that in the late 1920s, Jabbo was as good as Armstrong but that they were “very different players and that Jabbo shouldn’t be judged by comparisons”.
Despite having his astonishing and highly individual style of playing showcased on the Brunswick sides, Jabbo couldn’t shake off his image as an Armstrong imitator – much to his chagrin. The record company pulled the plug on the Rhythm Aces recordings because the records weren’t the commercial success that they’d hoped for. A year after their release, Jabbo went to Milwaukee and spent several years playing with different bands there and in Chicago. He seems to have drifted between the two cities. Late in his life, he told the trumpeter Michel Bastide: “You get into a little trouble in Chicago – you run to Milwaukee… You get into a little trouble in Milwaukee – you run to Chicago.”
In 1936, the bandleader Claude Hopkins heard Jabbo as he passed through Milwaukee and signed him up for two years. Then, in 1938, Jabbo made what would turn out to be his last recordings for over 20 years, when he recorded four more of his own compositions for Decca – including the gorgeous ballad Absolutely and the jaw-droppingly complex Rhythm in Spain.
Jabbo slid into obscurity but seems to have been content to do so. Although he was wild and unruly as a young man, he has been described by many who knew him later in his life as a quiet, introverted character – something of a loner – who seems to have been quite happy to take whatever came his way. He certainly never sought fame – which is just as well, because he never again reached the heights he scaled when he was just 20.
Jabbo was more or less forgotten about by the mid-1950s when Milt Hinton’s comments for the Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya oral history prompted renewed interest in him. However, it wasn’t until 1961 that he was tracked down to Milwaukee and brought to Chicago for a recording session with a local rhythm section which included the guitarist Marty Grosz.
Grosz has described Jabbo as a free spirit, someone who followed his own path. It’s an assessment which ties in with Milt Hinton statement that if Jabbo made enough money for drinks and women in any small town, he would stay put. Michel Bastide, whose Hot Antic Jazz Band toured and recorded with Jabbo in the trumpeter’s seventies, believes that Jabbo was easily distracted by women and might have fared better in his musical career if he had had someone to look after him and advise him in the way that Lil Hardin did for Louis Armstrong.
When Jabbo was tracked down in 1961, he hadn’t touched his trumpet for nearly two decades and had been working for Avis car hire for many years. He said that he had married and settled down in Milwaukee, playing trumpet in a nightclub at first. When the club closed down, he simply put his horn under his bed and found himself another job. But he did continue composing.
After his rediscovery in the early 1960s, Jabbo seems to have retreated from the limelight once more. He next popped up in the mid-1970s when the impresario George Wein invited him to New York to receive an award as one of the greatest living musicians in jazz history. This time, he was back to stay: he began practising the trumpet again thanks to the encouragement of the clarinettist Orange Kellin who invited him to New Orleans, to play in his band. This led to his being hired for the show One More Time which earned him euphoric reviews.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jabbo enjoyed a last blast of glory. He played the New York jazz clubs and worked with such diverse names as Thad Jones and Don Cherry. He also toured in Europe, in the company of a French jazz band which had been born out of a shared love of his recordings. The members of the Hot Antic Jazz Band – led by trumpeter Michel Bastide – spent three years mastering Jabbo’s 1929 repertoire and were thrilled when he agreed to come on tour and record with them.
Their affection for him and enthusiasm for his music clearly paid off: the resulting LPs (Zoo and The European Ccncerts) are delightful and provide a happy ending for what could have been yet another sad jazz tale. Jabbo Smith died in January 1991, leaving his trumpet to the Antics’ Michel Bastide.
* Jabbo Smith’s Rhythm Aces 1929-1938 (Classics Records 669)
* Jabbo Smith: The Complete Jabbo Smith Hidden Treasure Sessions (Lonehill Jazz LHJ10352) is newly out, and comprises the original Hidden Treasure LPs, recorded in 1961 with Marty Grosz etc, plus previously unreleased material
* Hot Antic Jazz Band: Jabbo Smith (Memories CD04) features the music from the two Hot Antic LPs with Jabbo. It’s available to buy at Hot Antic Jazz Band concerts and from its producer – firstname.lastname@example.org
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