Smith passed away Sunday after some years of poor health. She was, as one e-mail spreading word of her death put it, the matriarch of Local 5, the musicians union for the Detroit area.
She was born in Montgomery, Ala., but grew up among nine siblings in Detroit's North End neighborhood. In her teens in the 1940s she played piano with local up-and-comers like Wardell Gray (of “Twisted” fame, among other credits).
Later in the decade she took to the road with the Nat King Cole-styled trio the Counts and Countess. They played their way to California and stayed there for nearly five years before disbanding. They even made three soundies — the music videos of their days. (If only someone could find and post some of those to YouTube!)
An article by jazz historian Jim Gallert, the source of many of the details here, discusses her prowess as a vibraphonist as well as a pianist with the Counts and Countess. During one near-show-stopping solo on the then-popular “Flying Home,” she told Gallert, “Someone in the audience yelled, ‘Lionel Hampton, take off that dress!’” referring to the exuberant vibes-pounder who had made the song a hit in the first place.
She was an organ-trio leader in Cleveland for a number of years and moved back to Detroit in 1964. Her piano trio was a fixture at the near-downtown Rhinoceros Club from 1979 to 1994, and in the 2000s for a long stretch she alternated Tuesday nights with pianist Johnny Allen at Sweet Lorraine’s in Southfield.
She performed at the various incarnations of the Detroit jazz festivals, in the annual Boogie Woogie Festival and the Michigan Jazz Festival. The Southeast Michigan Jazz Associated saluted her for her work as a musician and educator. She recorded solo projects featuring her own tunes alongside classics and always hoped that some other singers would pick up her tunes like “Time Won’t Stop and Changes Keep on Coming,” and maybe her passing will generate a sufficient spark of interest.
For one of MT’s Valentines Day-timed Lust Issues, Smith was among the local singer-musicians queried for their favorite melodies to stoke libidinal intents.
Her response was pure Alma, including quotes from her faves:
I'm a sentimentalist. People like the words to Jimmy Dorsey's “I'm Glad There is You,” and I've been around long enough to remember when Jimmy Dorsey did it! “In this world of ordinary people, extraordinary people, I'm glad there is you.” Isn't that pretty? “In this world of overrated pleasures, of underrated treasures, I'm so glad there is you. I'm so glad there is you.” Another favorite is “Here's to Life.” I played that for Lee Iacocca's birthday once, and he was so taken, he went to fetch his wife and had me play it all over again. And then there's “Young and Foolish.” That gets to me every time. “We were foolish/One day we fell in love/Now we wonder what were we dreamin' of/Smiling in the sunlight, laughing in the rain/I wish that we were young and foolish again."
Arrangements for Alma Smith (Mary Alma Foster) are by the James H. Cole Home for Funerals—Northwest Chapel, 16100 Schaefer Hwy (at Puritan) in Detroit; 313-972-4405; [email protected]jameshcole.com.
Visitation: Sunday-Monday, May 13-14, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Services Tuesday, May 15, (her birthday) at 10:30 a.m., preceded by a family hour at 10.