Alto saxophonist Larry Smith lounges on a secondhand green leather sofa in his 15th floor apartment off Jefferson Avenue. He's looking out at the picturesque view of Lake St. Clair. Atop the glass coffee table is a half-empty pack of cigarettes, a soup bowl nearly filled with ashes and butts, three boxes of reeds, a 2008 jazz photo calendar (the shot currently displayed is saxophonist Gato Barbieri wearing cool shades), and a blue leather photo album commemorating a benefit concert his friends organized after his stroke. This evening, the saxophonist is chipper, grateful to be alive, grateful he's been given a second chance at life. Five years and two strokes ago, he stopped playing completely. He couldn't play. Now he's ready for a comeback.
"Before I had the stroke I was getting to another plateau in my playing. I was really starting to get into my horn," Smith, 65, says. In fact, his career was surging, including gigs in New York and a tour slated. The music business was finally delivering on almost 50 years in the jazz game, which Smith got his first serious taste of at age 15 when his mentor-to-be, Sonny Stitt, asked him to share the stage.
That was back in his hometown, Aliquippa, Penn., outside of Pittsburgh. At 18, in 1961, Smith moved to New York. He played with some big names such as organist Shirley Scott, drummer Joe Chambers and multi-saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. For years, Smith bounced around from New York to New Jersey to Detroit (where he sunk roots after his mother moved here) and back.
He gained a reputation as an old-school keeper of the bebop flame and a killer when it comes to the blues. But his specialty is ballads. He shuts his eyes, hunches his shoulders, and holds his saxophone like a prom date. The ballads are so touching they'd make the devil cry.
He has a bunch of admirers: Guitarist George Benson (who Smith knew before stardom and superstardom) and saxophonists Kenny Garrett and James Carter. Carter, in fact, has featured Smith on records twice. Carter's 1996 Conversin' with the Elders gave Smith equal billing to such better-known elders as Buddy Tate, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Lester Bowie. The Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge disc, released in 2004, put Smith alongside saxophonists Johnny Griffin, David Murray and Franz Jackson — not to mention Carter himself.
During a phone interview recently, Carter recalled that he met Smith back in 1983 when Carter was still a starry-eyed novice in his early teens.
"I met Larry at a very pivotal point in my life. The reason I call it pivotal is not too long before meeting him, I'd just started playing, and I had gotten hip to Charlie Parker through my brother who gave me one of Bird's albums. I was geeked up. I thought I would be able to go see Parker. I didn't know he had passed away. I was disappointed. The next guy I found out about was Larry Smith," Carter recalls.
"As fate would have it, I was with my girlfriend, and her mother was dating drummer Pistol Allen. Pistol was playing with Larry down at Bert's on Jefferson and Shelby." (This was years before Bert's moved to Eastern Market.)
Carter says Allen took him to Bert's. After the first set, Carter rushed the stage. "Larry came down off the stage, and I went up to him and said: 'Wow, Mr. Smith, you were really playing!' Then he asked me if I had three dollars. I bought his next Heineken," Carter says. (Come-ons like this are another Smith specialty.)
Since that encounter, Carter has been one of Smith's biggest fans. While Smith was rehabilitating, Carter visited him and helped keep Smith's horn in shape.
Carter continued: "I feel personally that Larry is seriously on par with the musical patriarchs that we have had past and present. I'm talking about folks like baritone saxophonist Thomas 'Beans' Bowles, pianist Harold McKinney. Larry has stories to tell not only in his playing but also in his speech. He's always looking for new ideas."
Smith was introduced to jazz by his uncle Joe Woods, a true enthusiast. Smith spent hours listening to his uncle's record collection, gravitating to two saxophonists in particular. One was Charlie Parker, the most widely credited architect of the bebop revolution and, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, its public face. The other was Sonny Stitt, the Saginaw-born musician who, depending on your point of view, was Parker's No. 1 acolyte, or the most like-minded of his fellow-traveling contemporaries. Either way, Stitt was an extraordinary player who took on a special status after Parker died in 1955. As Smith puts it, "He was the man that Charlie Parker passed the torch to."
At 15, Smith got a chance to meet Stitt. Smith's mom worked for a doctor who was heavily into jazz. The doctor took Smith to Pittsburgh to hear Stitt. Stitt was playing a two-week engagement at the Crawford Grill 2, a popular nightclub. Stitt invited Smith to sit in.
"He told me to go get my horn. That night, for some reason, I had my horn with me. I guess he saw the way I was listening to the music. He knew I was a musician. I got my horn from the doctor's car. Sonny insisted that I come on stage. I was so nervous the doctor asked me if I wanted a sedative," Smith recalls.
Smith impressed Stitt. The two became friends. Stitt talked mostly about life, and advised Smith to play in a variety of bands to become a well-rounded musician. Over the years, when Smith was on the road, he would often cross paths with Stitt. And his admiration for Stitt only deepened.
"Sonny meant everything to me," Smith says. "He gave me wisdom, and showed me what pitfalls to look out for in life. I loved his playing, but I never tried to copy his style. If you hear some of his style when I play, it's because I was around him, and he really had a big influence on me. There was such beauty and love in his playing. He didn't just play notes.
"You could tell the music that came out of his horn was what he actually experienced and lived. You know, singers like Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington sang what they lived. That's what made them such great singers. Sonny taught me that art of relaxation. His dexterity was unbelievable. Sonny was a bad man."
More than 20 years after that first meeting, in 1985, Smith reconnected with Stitt in New York one last time. Stitt was playing the famed New York Village jazz club Sweet Basil. After the show, Smith gave Stitt a big hug. He thanked Stitt for his friendship.
"After the gig he asked me if I would give him a ride to his hotel. So we took him back. He was walking toward his room, and he turned around and said: 'Larry it's your time to carry the torch.'"
A week later, a friend told him that Stitt had died.
Smith carried the torch. He stayed faithful to his bebop roots, saying he turned down an otherwise good record contract that would have meant playing more commercial music. He just wanted to play the jazz that mattered to him, he says. And that's what he was doing right up through 2003, when things were going so well. He had a stint at the Village Vanguard, the renowned jazz club in New York. He toured with the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin. Jazz promoter Maxine Smith (no relation) was coordinating a national tour honoring Stitt with Larry Smith as a key player. In his adopted hometown he had his weekends at Bert's.
Then the stroke flattened him.
One Saturday night at Bert's, the saxophonist felt numb along his left side, as he recalls. After the gig, he went to his girlfriend's house. She noticed the left corner of his mouth drooping, and a difference in his walk.
"She said: 'Don't take your clothes off. I'm taking you to the hospital.' I said, 'What do you mean?' And she said, 'You appear to be having a stroke.'" They rushed to Receiving Hospital.
Smith wondered if he'd ever play again. A week later, the hospital released him. His doctor ordered him to use a walker. He was scheduled to begin physical therapy, but somehow the necessary paperwork got screwed up. Smith skipped the physical therapy.
"When I got home, I put the walker in the corner. I never used it. I was really weak, but I was determined not to use it. If you don't use it you lose it. That's how I felt," Smith recalls.
Smith made changes. He ate healthier. He stopped drinking heavily. Daily he walked up and down the hall of the apartment building. Gradually, he improved, and pushed himself more.
Months later, Smith had another stroke. He started over. Again. This time he didn't push himself too hard. Smith went from walking the halls to climbing a hill near the apartment building. He got stronger. He went from climbing the hill to riding a mountain bike. Then he started playing again.
"That was really tough because you practice all the time, and play different gigs. Not being able to do that, man, was a nightmare. I had to really get myself together to know what was happening, but I didn't spend a lot of time dwelling on that. I had to think positive," Smith says.
Smith tested his stamina. He eventually returned to the Wednesday-Thursday night jams at Bert's Marketplace in Eastern Market, starting off with just a tune or two a night. Club owner Bert Dearing told Smith he could have his old job back when he felt ready. By late summer he was hanging out at length, sometimes in the company of young friend Carter.
The first Saturday in September, Smith reclaimed his old gig. Maxine Smith came from New York with Sandy Jordan, (the late saxophonist Clifford Jordan's widow) and Gloria Ware (the late bassist Wilbur Ware's widow). Smith floored them. "When I heard him in September at Bert's I said, 'Wow! This man is still the bomb,'" Maxine Smith says. That night she decided to finally do the national tour honoring Sonny Stitt.
The saxophonist's life is slowly becoming normal again, and he has some prospects. There are a few gigs in Boston coming up and he's to headline in the long-awaited Sonny Stitt tribute tour in February.
"I never felt like this was it — that my career was over. I thank God every day and night," Smith says.
Larry Smith performs Saturdays at Bert's Marketplace, 2727 Russell St., Detroit; 313-567-2030.Charles L. Latimer writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]