With the passing of Johnny Smith on Tuesday, June 11, 2013, RADIO FREE CHIP has lost a friend and continuing source of inspiration, and the music world has lost an iconic figure in the history of the arch top guitar–as played with a plectrum. It put me in mind of a conversation I had with Johnny,long retired (as documented on my old web site), in which I gamely tried to cajole him into coming out of retirement and engaging an honored collaborator of yore, legendary jazz pianist Hank Jones, in recording an album of duets. Johnny’s wit, reticence and humility in gently puncturing the balloon of my fantasies, are emblematic of Smith’s character as a man, artistic principles as a jazz innovator, and gentle good humor as a friend–enduring qualities reflected eternally in his very personal SOUND SIGNATURES.
Hoping against hope, I harbored fantasies that I could petition the master with prayer; that Johnny might relent and unsheathe his chord-melody sword–that there might yet be a few more buckets of water remaining in the well.
Subsequently, in kvelling about Johnny’s voice leading innovations and tonal elegance with his old comrade in arms, the great Hank Jones, this tribal elder of jazz piano allowed as how he might try and get Johnny to undertake some sort of duet recording project.
I thought I saw an opening, a bit of artistic daylight, and that I could try running this inspired notion up the creative flagpole–perchance Johnny might salute.
“Very little,” he demurred.
“Well, my friend Guy tells me that it was simply goose-bump city when you played “Send In The Clowns.”
“Well, now, that’s extremely generous of him.” [Knock, knock…come in?]
I kept searching for an opening. “Perhaps now’s the time to play my Hank Jones trump card,” I thought. “He can say no to me, but how could he possibly say no to Brother Jones?”
“Well,” Johnny said warmly, “I think the world of Hank. I always refer to him as the Chopin of jazz piano.”
“I know, I know, and when I told Hank that he was completely blown away. And of course, he had all sorts of lovely things to say about you. And, not that I didn’t coax it out of him a little bit, but Hank thought he might try and approach you about maybe taking on a duet project in the studio.”
I could practically hear Johnny smile and shrug at the same time, and once more he politely explained that for him those days were long past. “I talked to Doc Severinsen recently, and he asked me if I ever played anymore. And I told him, no. And he asked, ‘Well, what about picking up the instrument and playing a bit around the house.’ And I told him, nope—never. And he told me that he’d reached the point where he was thinking about hanging it up. ‘And when I toot that last note, on that last night, of that last concert, that’s it—from that point on my trumpet is a lamp.’”
Well, I reasoned, in the company of a musician like Hank, where there’s such a strong rapport, and where the keyboard can carry so much of the weight…
Ka-Ching. No Sale.
“Well, I’m a selfish fan, Johnny” I teased him, “and short of showing up on your porch, having a few drinks and asking you to maybe pull out the guitar and show me a few chords, there are so many of us who would love one last opportunity to experience your artistry. So at the risk of sounding hokey, let me try a Zen approach.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to be a student of music again?”
“Sure,” I enthused, “at the service of music, like sitting on the back porch, and picking for the fun of it, improvising in the company of a kindred spirit, and just kind of letting the chips fall where they may—playing for your own personal pleasure?”
“Well, Chip” Johnny chuckled patiently, “as a jazz musician, once you reach the point of puberty, there really is no turning back. And at that juncture, you’re never playing purely for yourself—you are always performing. You see, the interaction with an audience is what the experience is all about. And you don’t get any enjoyment, and you are not fulfilled, just sitting around the house and plunking away for yourself.
“And to perform, to really perform, consistently and at the highest levels, is what being a musician is all about. I’ve talked with Artie Shaw about this, and he told me the same thing. Once he was through performing on the clarinet that was it–he never touched it again.”
But such are the cycles of life, and while those of us who weren’t there to experience it for ourselves might bemoan our fate.
That is how a century or so of recordings, cinema and photographs allow us to participate on some level.
To get some sense of the original events and the times in which they were lived.
So while we might have missed the catalytic interaction, the creative give and take between a performer and live audience that could make a gin joint like Birdland and all the other clubs on 52nd Street come alive, our little digital recollections must suffice…
To remind us of what we missed, as we sigh one more time, one more time…
Still, Johnny Smith himself would be hard-pressed to find anything tragic in all of this.
“I’ve led a very fortunate life, Chip,” he reassured me. “I can’t think of anything in life that I could realize as being better than the life I’ve had. And that’s really all true. It’s been a dream life in many ways, and I feel very fortunate that I was in the music business at a point that I consider to have been the very apex of live music. When I was back in New York during the ‘40s and the ‘50s, everything was live music. And it was one of my dreams when I was very young that I would be able to be in the company of really great musicians, and that dream came true.
“Of course, at the point where I left New York in 1958, was when everything began to fall apart as far as live jazz was concerned—rhythm and blues and television really put a dent in live music. But I was really fortunate to have been there during such an exciting period for live jazz. And like I say, I’m the most fortunate person you will ever meet, Chip. Every dream I’ve ever had has come true, across the board: getting a chance to play with the greatest musicians, that came true; flying airplanes, that came true; living in a beautiful place like Colorado Springs, that came true…and fishing for big fish,” he laughed, “that came true as well. I’ve realized everything in life that I ever wanted to do. Fortunately, getting rich wasn’t one of them. I’ve always believed that wealth is not measured in money—wealth is measured in friends and good experiences. So I’m square across the board. Isn’t that something, Chip?”
“Sure is, Johnny. Just the kid in me I guess, like the way you never want a summer’s day to end. Anyway, I feel so blessed just to have gotten to know you, baby.”
“Well I feel blessed to know you, too, Chip, and I certainly appreciate your friendship, and all of the nice things you and Jack [Wilkins] and the other fellows have had to say about me and my music on your web site. It’s all very humbling, and I certainly wish you had a more interesting subject to talk about. Anyway, listen my friend,” Johnny announces with breezy tongue-in-cheek finality. “It’s cocktail time out here, so I’ve got to go, but it’s been a pleasure talking with you, as always.”
Go Johnny. Go…Johnny still be good.