Jazz Profiles from NPR
Willie "The Lion" Smith
Produced by Sally Placksin

Willie 'The Lion' Smith  

He's been called a musician's musician, whose original approach made him the envy of virtually every pianist in jazz -- and every wise guy. "The Lion" was as well known for his flamboyant behavior, ever present cigar and derby hat as he was for his Harlem stride style piano.

Listen to pianist Billy Taylor, friend Mike Lipskin, and festival producer George Wein talk about Willie "The Lion" Smith

William Henry Joseph Berthol Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith was born in Goshen, New York on November 25, 1897. His family later moved to Newark, New Jersey, while he was still very young. Music was always a part of family life: His mother played the organ and his grandmother played both organ and the guitar.

Listen to The Lion talk about his upbringing

The Lion started playing the piano at age eight. While growing up in Newark, he was exposed to music of both Jewish and African American cultures and would later embrace these influences in his own sound.

Listen to The Lion explain his love for black church music and Jewish melodies

"I used to dance and my mother used to say, 'Don't go up the right side and come back on the right side, go up the right side and come back on the left -- alternate.'"

-- Willie "The Lion" Smith  

In the early 1900s, Willie discovered the music of pianists James P. Johnson, Lucky Roberts and Fats Waller, who were keeping the ragtime tradition alive in New York. While still a teen, Willie started playing professionally and incorporated the rhythmic stride style in his playing.

In 1916, Willie enlisted in the Army where he became the drum major for his unit. During World War I, he spent over a month on the front lines, where he earned his name "The Lion" for his bravery.

By 1919, The Lion was back playing in clubs in New York and he recorded his first record as an accompanist for Mamie Smith. He was a great entertainer who could easily "work" an audience -- he was known for not just playing a gig, but literally taking over a club as a master of ceremonies for the night.

Listen to Willie recall touring on the vaudeville circuit of the 1920s

The Lion quickly became a mentor for younger musicians such as Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, Artie Shaw, and the Dorsey Brothers. They would often go up to Harlem and listen to Willie and play and ask for musical tips to better their skills.

Listen to saxophonist Bob Wilber explain how Willie was a mentor to younger jazz musicians

As the 1920s arrived, a new form of jazz piano playing emerged out of Harlem -- stride. An evolution from ragtime, stride had a true master in Willie Smith. Also during this time, many Harlem "rent parties" started; residents would invite friends over and serve up food, drinks and live music, charging a nominal fee in order to raise money for rent.

Listen to Willie describe the Harlem rent parties

Some of Willie's piano contemporaries were James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and Eubie Blake. While playing at rent parties, members of this group would often engage in friendly musical combat called "cutting contests." Each pianist would try to top the other -- both on the keyboard and off.

Listen to Willie, pianist Brooks Kerr, and Lipskin talk about Willie's winning strategies at the cutting contests

Willie always brought his interest in European classical music into his playing and composing. His own compositions were inventive and always challenging. During the 1930s, he composed a number of beautiful pieces, some of which infused a classical feeling, such as his most famous composition "Echo of Spring."

Listen to Willie give insights into his compositional methods

Willie "The Lion" Smith lived through six decades of music and, despite the changes in musical styles over those years, he remained true to himself and his own style. He recorded a final album in Paris in June 1972 and played right up until his death in April 1973. Today, his spirit and his legacy still live on through his music.

Listen to Willie on playing music


View the Willie "The Lion" Smith show playlist


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