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Stuff Smith

In the era of early jazz and swing, the violin was often an instrument that carried a hint of an old-fashioned sound—a suggestion of classical music, of the high-society dance orchestra, of the gypsy café music of Europe. But Stuff Smith, considered one of the most important jazz violinists of his time, made music that told a different story: Smith's violin was raucous, rhythmically daring, and bluesy, looking toward the future, not the past. Like most great jazz players, Smith pushed the envelope in his playing, and later in his career he adapted with little difficulty to the new musical language of bebop. Smith also sang and was the composer of several jazz standards.

Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith was born in Portsmouth, Ohio, on August 14, 1909, but grew up in Cleveland. His father taught him to play the violin and encouraged him to study classical music. Smith took some music lessons but switched to jazz after hearing Louis Armstrong play the trumpet; Armstrong influenced Smith's own style at a fundamental level. Although he had received a scholarship to study at Johnson C. Smith University, Smith opted for a musical life instead. At age 15 he joined a touring minstrel show, the Aunt Jemima Revue.

In 1926 Smith joined the Dallas-based band of Alphonso Trent; this was one of the so-called "territory" bands that grew from the improvisatory and bluesy roots of jazz rather than moving toward the more composed and arranged style of the eastern seaboard. He stayed with Trent for four years, moving briefly to the band of Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton but returning after becoming frustrated that his violin could not be heard over the dense sound of Morton's group. In 1930 Smith formed his own band in Buffalo, New York.

During his Buffalo years Smith cast one eye on New York, and he got there in late 1935 and 1936 after he composed a scat-like novelty song called "I'se a Muggin'" (the words seem to have no specific meaning). The song caught on, and musician-impresario Dick Stabile booked Smith and his band, which now included drummer "Cozy" Cole, into the Onyx Club on 52nd Street. Rechristened Stuff Smith and His Onyx Club Boys, the band was a successful fixture of the New York scene for several years. The main attraction was Smith himself, attired in a worn-out top hat and sometimes sporting a parrot on his shoulder. Smith and his band also recorded several sides for the Vocalion label in 1936. "I'se a Muggin'" became a moderate hit, but another recording of that year turned out to have longer-lasting resonances—"You'se a Viper," was covered by vocalist "Fats" Waller in 1943 and enjoyed renewed popularity in the counterculture of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

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The Jazz Life

Fit As A Fiddle: How The Violin Helped Shape Jazz, Part 1

Read "Fit As A Fiddle: How The Violin Helped Shape Jazz, Part 1" reviewed by Peter Rubie

Part 1 | Part 2 That was then... Considering jazz is an art form that mostly makes it up as it goes along, it's ironically appropriate that printed records--i.e., data--from the days of its birth are decidedly sparse. We know, at least, that during the 18th and 19th Centuries in New Orleans white plantation owners, one afternoon a week, allowed their African slaves time off to play their music and dance together. This music, direct from Africa, albeit ...

Album Review

Stuff Smith: Five Fine Violins Celebrating 100 Years

Read "Five Fine Violins Celebrating 100 Years" reviewed by Chris Mosey

Featured here in his twilight years, violinist Hezekiah Leroy Gordon “Stuff" Smith was born in Portsmouth, Ohio in 1909. Before he died in Denmark in 1967, he became one of the jazz world's most colorful characters, performing on occasion with a parrot on his shoulder and playing with everyone from Alphonso Trent's minstrel band to Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson. Career-wise, Stuff Smith peaked with his Onyx Club Boys in the 1930s, when he set out to ...

Multiple Reviews

Stuff Smith: The Complete Tenor Sax Septets & Masters of Jazz

Read "Stuff Smith: The Complete Tenor Sax Septets & Masters of Jazz" reviewed by George Kanzler

Stuff Smith The Complete Tenor Sax Septets Ab Fable 2006 Stuff Smith Masters of Jazz Storyville 2006

These two albums give us snapshots of violinist and vocalist Stuff Smith at the apex and finale of his career in jazz. That career started in the '20s - when he, like ...

Album Review

Stuff Smith: Swingin' Stuff

Read "Swingin' Stuff" reviewed by Ken Dryden

Not only was Stuff Smith one of the first prominent jazz violinists, his gritty sound was very distinctive. These live sessions, recorded in 1965 (two years prior to his death), will be of great interest to fans of his work, with the addition of four previously unissued songs. Smith is accompanied by a superb rhythm section consisting of pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Niels-Henning ...

Album Review

Stuff Smith: Hot Stuff

Read "Hot Stuff" reviewed by Florence Wetzel

After a long career in the United States, the great jazz violinist Stuff Smith (1909-67) moved to Copenhagen in 1965. Many recordings exist from this fertile period in Smith's career. The new CD Hot Stuff is a reissue of the previously out-of-print Live at Montmarte , recorded in 1965, combined with four tracks from Hot Violins , recorded in 1966. Live at Montmarte is a concert from Copenhagen's Jazzhus Montmarte and features Kenny Drew on piano, Niels-Henning ...


Stuff Smith: Swing Violinist

Read "Stuff Smith: Swing Violinist" reviewed by AAJ Staff

From the 1995-2003 archive: This article first appeared at All About Jazz in 2002. When Hezekiah Leroy Gordon “Stuff" Smith picked up the violin, the house began to rock. The second major popularizer of the violin in jazz after Joe Venuti, Stuff received great success with his small high energy swing band in the Thirties. His choice of instrument was rare in jazz, but because of it's natural flexibility Stuff was able to give the violin a strong, ...

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Great Stuff

Great Stuff

Source: Riffs on Jazz by John Anderson

Stuff Smith, born on this date in 1909, was one of the three great pre-bop jazz violinists (along with Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli). In an era when the violin was considered a bit old-fashioned sounding for jazz, Smith's playing was more raw and rhythmic, using a more Texas blues feel to knock any whiff of stale classicism out of his violin. Born Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith in Portsmouth, Ohio, Stuff's father encouraged him to play classical violin, but he ...



Jazz Musician of the Day: Stuff Smith

Jazz Musician of the Day: Stuff Smith

Source: All About Jazz

All About Jazz is celebrating Stuff Smith's birthday today!


Stuff Smith - violin, composer, bandleader, recording artist (1909-1967) In the era of early jazz and swing, the violin was often an instrument that carried a hint of an old-fashioned sound--a suggestion of classical music... more

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Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

Five Fine Violins...

Storyville Records


Swingin' Stuff

Storyville Records


Jazz Violin Summit

Legacy International


Hot Stuff

Storyville Records


Cat On A Hot Fiddle

Eagle Records




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