Leroy “Stuff” Smith, born in 1909, helped turn the violin into a jazz instrument. His dad taught him classical violin when he was growing up in Ohio, but when Louis Armstrong’s swing stole his heart, he never looked back.
He moved to New York City in the 1930s, gigging regularly at the famous Onyx Club and befriending powerhouses like Dizzy Gillespie and Nat King Cole. Among his closest collaborators throughout his career was fellow violinist Stéphane Grappelli, one year his senior. (I wrote about Grappelli in Issue 89.) It’s also worth noting that Smith was a technological innovator, experimenting with amplifying his instrument by attaching a transducer to its bridge.
As was true for many Black jazz artists, Smith found that he faced less racism in Europe. He spent the last couple of decades of his life in Germany and environs, where he was kept busy playing at festivals with both European musicians and American colleagues he invited over. He died in Munich in 1967.
Enjoy these eight great tracks by Stuff Smith.
- Track: “Comin’ Thru the Rye”
Album: Stuff Smith and Dizzy Gillespie
In 1957, Smith made a duo album with Dizzy Gillespie. These maestros worked exquisitely together, with a common energy and spirit and with ears keen to catch and run with each other’s musical ideas. And some of the credit goes to Norman Granz, the founder of Verve Records, who lived and breathed jazz and always paid his artists profound sonic respect.
“Comin’ Thru the Rye” is based on a Scottish folk song (mentioned in that famous J.D. Salinger novel, of course) that Smith recorded several times. Smith and Gillespie have no trouble turning this tune into a jazz number. On piano is Carl Perkins (not the rockabilly singer) in one of his few studio recordings; he died when he was only 29.
- Track: “It’s Wonderful”
Album: Have Violin, Will Swing
This track is a terrific example of Smith’s typically gritty articulation, combining pressure on the bow with a very slight swoop at the start of each phrase. You’ll also notice the weightlessness of some of his notes, as if they are parachutes and he is somehow hanging from them.
Smith is in the best company here, with Carl Perkins on piano, Red Callender on bass, and Oscar La Bradley holding the proceedings together with his solid but soulful brushwork.
- Track: “The Man I Love”
Album: Cat on a Hot Fiddle
Packed with American popular standards, most of them by Gershwin, Cat on a Hot Fiddle finds Smith and his colleagues exploring swing’s core building material. “The Man I Love” was first used onstage in the 1927 Gershwin show Strike Up the Band. Its simple, economical melody, rendered heartbreaking by the shifting harmonies beneath it, quickly caught on in the jazz sphere.
Smith eschews sentimentality, taking the tune at a jaunty pace over a two-feel beat (Lewis Powers, bass; Harold Saunders, drums). And while it is not mournful, the playing is intensely emotional. It’s also technically stunning: check out the sliding double-stops starting around 3:05.
- Track: “Skip It”
Album: Herb Ellis and Stuff Smith Together!
Combining Smith’s violin with Herb Ellis’s guitar makes for true jazz combustibility. Rounding out the quintet are Lou Levy on piano, Al McKibbon on bass, and Shelly Manne on drums.
“Skip It” is the first track, a tune by Smith that he originally wrote for the Stuff Smith Trio in the late 1940s. He would go on to record it with Stéphane Grappelli in a much slower, more subtle version. This one with Ellis pops and jives at an almost frenetic pace.
- Track: “Willow Weep for Me”
Album: Stuff and Steff
Reissued on CD as part of Gitanes Jazz Productions’ estimable Jazz in Paris series, this duet album with Grappelli is a treasure trove for fans of jazz violin from the years before the fusion subgenre changed the instrument.
The haunting standard “Willow Weep for Me” was composed in 1932 by Ann Ronnell, who reportedly had a lot of trouble getting it published because of the complexity of its form. Thank goodness she persevered. Over the years, the song has been recorded in both duple and triple meter. Smith chose the former, giving it a closer relationship with traditional blues.
- Track: “Cherokee”
Album: Black Violin
There’s no small measure of pride in the album title Black Violin. Few enough jazz violinists make any name for themselves, and Smith stood out as one of the very few famous Black players of his generation. He died five years before BASF pulled this collection from its vault.
One of the gems to discover is “Cherokee,” Smith’s take on the 1942 Charlie Parker tune. Smith has a way of floating his bow across the strings that calls to mind Parker’s breathy sustained notes. Standing out among the crack team here are German pianist Otto Weiss and Swiss drummer Charly Antolini.
- Track: “No Points Today”
Album: Violins No End
Although not released until 1984, Violins No End contains studio work by Smith and Grappelli from 1957. It’s another Norman Granz production, with top-notch guests like Herb Ellis and Oscar Peterson.
Smith shared writing credits for “No Points Today” with Grappelli and Peterson, indicating that it was created and developed in the moment during recording sessions. Whatever the case, this number sparkles with humor and virtuosity.
- Track: “Girl from Ipanema”
Album: Live at the Montmartre
Another delayed Smith triumph is this live album recorded in 1965 but kept in the vault until 1988. His fellow musicians onstage are all Danes, with the exception of Kenny Drew on piano.
It’s fun to hear Smith apply his sexy phrasing to the bossa nova style of “Girl from Ipanema,” by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Had he not been so devoted to swing, to the exclusion of all else, Smith might have had a lot to offer Latin jazz. His approach to the rhythm is unusual, with syncopation in places unexpected in this genre.