Johnny Smith: The Man, The Legend

Dom Minasi By

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No matter how you cut it, Johnny Smith brought a level of excellence to guitar playing that will exist forever —Dom Minasi
On June 11, 2013, guitarist Johnny Smith passed away. He was 90 years old. Some may have never heard of him, but in the world of jazz guitar he was legend.

There will be many articles written about him. Besides the historical content of his accomplishments, I want to write about what he meant to me on a personal level and the thousands of other guitarists throughout the world.

I was 14 years old when I started attending John Adams High School in Ozone Park, New York. Adams was a large school and had over five thousand kids attending in different time shifts and had every type of activity you could think of. Today's specialized schools could not compare to the high schools of yesteryear. We had every type of sports team, every language and drama club you could think of. And then there was music. It had a junior chorus, senior chorus, acapella chorus, orchestra, marching band, and a big band (swing/jazz). Besides being on the football team, I joined the junior chorus. I took bass lessons at school so I could play in the orchestra and I played guitar in the swing band. As a sophomore, I was able to add music theory as one of my majors. A few years later I quit football because I was at a crossroads; play football or the guitar.

My days in the swing band were great. I made a lot of new musical friends (that I still have today) and I got to improve my reading skills—and I played music that I enjoyed. The swing band was so enthusiastic about playing, that we would sometimes have extra rehearsals at the drummer's house. The first time I went to Mike Simonetti's house, I was early. In fact I was the only one there. Mike showed me an album called Moonlight In Vermont, and asked if I had ever heard of Johnny Smith. I was new to jazz and I didn't know who a lot of the player's were. He put on the record and I sat there stunned. I had never heard a guitar played like that before. Besides an astounding technique, Johnny Smith's chordal work and sound was incredibly beautiful. The arrangements were extraordinary and I could tell they were very difficult to execute.

At that time I was studying guitar with Joe Genelli. Joe was a great teacher and a great player, and I asked him about Johnny Smith. Joe knew him and they were friends. As a kid this was just unbelievable to me. My teacher knew a jazz star! I later found out, because of Joe's extensive work, he knew all the greats at that time. Joe started giving me chord melodies to learn a la Johnny Smith's style. I was thrilled to learn them.

During the 1950s in New York City, The Daily News, and The New Post advertised all the clubs in the Friday papers. When I saw that Johnny Smith was playing at Birdland, I begged my father to take me to see him. We went on a Friday night and we sat at a table right up front. Johnny was only 35 at the time. He strapped on the guitar and began to play. I was truly amazed and I knew from that point on, that's what I wanted to do. I not only wanted to be a jazz musician, I wanted to have the kind of technique and control that Johnny had.

One of the first things I did was go out and buy a portable hi-fi set. That's what they called stereos in those days. Then I bought Moonlight In Vermont. I also realized that my time with Joe Genelli was up. If I wanted to grow as a guitarist I would have to find a real jazz guitarist to study. Although Joe was a jazz guitarist, his style was more like a swing player from the forties. His real strength was his ability to sight-read.

As I became more and more aware of jazz guitarists, I started to search for one to study with. Billy Taylor had a jazz TV Show on every Saturday that I watched like clock work. His guitarist was Mundell Lowe. I found his number and gave him a call. He told me he was too busy. I asked him who he thought I could study with, and he told me to try Sal Salvador. I found Sal's number and gave him a call. Sal didn't teach me anything about jazz or harmony and theory but he made me realize how much I didn't know about music or the guitar. Within one month with Sal I was improving as a guitarist.

Because Birdland had a peanut gallery for kids, I was able to go see Johnny Smith whenever he appeared there and because there were always two groups performing, I saw many other jazz musicians. That's when I realized there was more to this music than I had thought. I taught myself everything about jazz and harmony and theory because in those days it was a big secret. No one was giving it away. If you wanted to learn, you had to listen and basically teach yourself. But it all started with Johnny Smith.

Johnny's influence spread far and wide. Not only was he a super guitarist he was a great musician who could read anything at sight.


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