I grew up in Denver, and was very lucky to begin studying guitar with Dale Bruning in my last year of high school—Dale opened up the whole world of jazz music to me. Dale’s also an incredible bass player, and at the time had a steady weekend gig with Johnny Smith. I believe this was where I first became aware of him.
[A rare clip of Johnny Smith in a live setting swinging his ass off as he invokes the Sound Signature of jazz guitar innovator Charlie Christian in the company of some giants of modern jazz: guitarist Mundell Lowe, bassist Monty Budwig, pianist Hank Jones and drummer Alan Dawson.]
But I didn’t get to meet him until a couple years later when I had the good fortune to actually take some classes with him at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. It started out as a small class of not-so-enthusiastic guitar students—except for me, I guess—but gradually they all dropped out until it was just Johnny and me.
He had such an awesome command of the instrument. Johnny was really committed to breaking down all the limitations of the guitar. He was among the first people I ever heard to pursue a pianistic approach to the guitar, and he really expanded the orchestral possibilities of the instrument with his elevated levels of technical clarity, tone, touch, harmonic richness…everything!
What a fantastic experience! Johnny was real strong about using the pick, and not in combination with his right hand fingers like I do. He played everything with the pick, including classical guitar pieces and all kinds of stuff, with terrific articulation, executing these wide skips across the strings…oh boy.
And most of the music he presented me with was written on two staves, in the bass and treble clefs, and not transposed (usually guitar music is written an octave higher than it actually sounds). He was really committed to thinking about the instrument in this way.
Along the way there have been a few people that gave me some very much-needed encouragement, and helped instill the confidence in me to try and devote my life to playing the guitar. Johnny Smith was one of these people early on, and I’m so grateful to him for this encouragement.
Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate more and more the depth of his musicianship. I’m so lucky to have met him.
As it turns out, a couple of years ago I did a recording session where Ry Cooder was gracious enough to make a cameo appearance.
Ry was looking for a song we could do together and he asked me if I’d ever heard of Johnny Smith and his beautiful solo version of “Shenandoah.”
He wasn’t aware that I’d had lessons with Johnny.
Anyway, we dedicated our version of that tune to him.