The last jazz purist

"The blues is a natural part of me. I grew up across the street from a Baptist church. They used to keep their door open, and I used to sit on the porch and listen to the music of the Silvertones and the Mighty Clouds of Joy," says Detroit saxophonist Larry Smith, who inherited his soulful and bluesy sound as a sideman in Don Patterson and Johnny "Hammond" Smith's bands, and has built a reputation as a jazz musician who uses his instrument to tell stories.

Because of a bum hip and stomach illness, he often plays sitting on a barstool. When he begins to get inside a tune, he becomes animated, moving the bell of his horn so it looks like it's kissing the microphone. His neck sinks into his shoulder and he begins to do a light shuffle around the stage. Smith's mood is contagious. Bassist Rodney Hicks leans his head against a framed picture of Thelonious Monk, and it looks as though Monk is whispering instructions into his ear. A picture of Count Basie behind pianist Teddy Harris seems to be encouraging Harris to swing. Drummer Larry Cleaver's drumsticks are moving faster than airplane propellers. The smell of fried catfish and chicken wings -- which gives Bert's Market Place that inner-city, jook-joint vibe -- adds authenticity to Smith's blues.

When Larry Smith plays the blues, his horn wails like a mother sitting on a stoop mourning the death of her child. He uses the blues and sentiment-drenched compositions like "Estaté," which has become a staple in his repertoire, to capture and transfix his audience. Blood and the blues flow through his veins; Smith considers himself a storyteller.

"My music is about what I have experienced in my life and it comes out through my music. I try to tell a story as opposed to just playing notes," he says.

When he was a kid growing up in Beaver Valley, Pa., his grandmother bought him his first alto saxophone. His uncle Nate, a musician and nightclub manager, taught Smith how to read music and play standard jazz compositions in difficult keys. He turned Smith on to saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Sonny Stitt.

"I met Lou Donaldson when I was 11 years old. He sat down in a chair in my house. I'll never forget it. It was a big green chair. In my mind, he was this famous, great saxophone player. I remember asking him about Charlie Parker. ... I kept asking him, 'When did you meet Charlie Parker?' He crumbled down his newspaper and said, 'Well, young man, I was there too.' I went to the record player and pulled out all his records and started playing them. Man, he was shocked."

At age 15, Smith went to a nightclub to hear Stitt. After the first set, Stitt invited him to sit in. "Sonny told me to get my horn. Man, I was scared to death. There was a doctor in there who asked me if I wanted a sedative," he recalls.

"Here I'm standing on the bandstand with Sonny Stitt, the greatest in the world. I was so nervous that they had to help me onto the stage. Sonny had to put smelling salts under my nose to keep me from passing out. He started off with a slow tempo tune. Then he went right into 'Cherokee,' which is one of the hardest tunes to play. I got through the tune, and every night for the next 10 days that we played Sonny paid my train fare and bought me dinner."

After high school, Smith moved to Boston where he joined organist Winston Walls' trio. A year later, he moved to New York to learn from tenor sax luminaries such as Dexter Gordon and Coleman Hawkins. Smith paid dues in New York during the "organ craze," as a sideman performing in bands led by Patterson, Smith and Jimmy McGriff at legendary jazz clubs like Minton's and the Village Vanguard. As a band leader, years later, he packed the same clubs, enjoying a burst of success and popularity before hardship knocked down his door.

The bluesy mood is contagious.

In the mid-'60s, though, Smith saw jazz going in a commercial direction. "I passed up a lot of things because I didn't want to play the kind of music that Cannonball and Miles were playing. I'm not sorry that I decided to keep playing the music that I wanted to play, but I'm sorry that I wasn't business enough to take advantage of some of the opportunities that I had."

Things dried up for Smith, finally forcing him out of New York. He moved to Detroit where he got an assembly line job at Chrysler, but he kept his chops strong at night by performing with pianist Harold McKinney at the Checkmate Club.

Bad career decisions got the best of him. He says he turned down a chance to join Lionel Hampton's orchestra and the Elvin Jones Quartet, and refused to sign with certain managers and record companies because he didn't like the music they wanted him to play. At the time, he says he was only concerned with playing jazz, not gaining celebrity.

When asked if he kicks himself when he hears about the success of Kenny Garrett, Vincent Herring and James Carter, a generation of young musicians who talk about learning from him, he jokes: "I think that's why I have a stomach problem. ... But I didn't know that they were influenced by me. It makes me feel very, very good. I'm happy for their success."

Refusal to sell his soul for commercial success has only hurt his bank account. He maintains a blow-and-go schedule. When not touring Europe three months a year, he performs at clubs in New York, Ohio and Michigan.

Jazz has taken Larry Smith from a small town in Pennsylvania to the jazz meccas of the world. To hear him is to hear a musician who knows his way around the blues like a mechanic around an engine. It has taken him 43 years to master the anatomy of his instrument and perfect his storytelling skills. The story that Smith is telling is of a musician's unwillingness to disregard the tradition of creativity and excellence established by the foreparents and prodigal sons and daughters of jazz. He hasn't received the exposure that a musician of his caliber deserves, but he's remained true to the art that gives his life substance.

"I'm proud of myself for sticking to my guns, because in the end I found some music that I could stick with." Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

Scroll to read more Michigan Music articles

Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.