The Story of Jabbo Smith This Week on Riverwalk Jazz


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Jabbo Smith had a short but important recording career in the late 1920s when he became the first trumpeter to seriously challenge Louis Armstrong with a virtuosity years ahead of its time. On this week's Riverwalk Jazz, The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band revives their favorite Jabbo Smith compositions, we'll hear scenes of Jabbo's life from his own oral histories as told by special guest Vernel Bagneris.

Mr. Bagneris wrote and directed the international hit revue One Mo' Time, and he created a part for Jabbo Smith in the road company. Jabbo toured with the show for four years, from 1978 to 1982. On our show, Bagneris shares personal insights into Jabbo's life gained from their life on the road together.Vernel sings several of Jabbo's compositions: “Absolutely, Positively," “More Rain, More Rest," “Yes, Yes, Yes," and the enchanting “I Took My Little Daughter to the Zoo." Jabbo's “Zoo" song, and the Band's instrumental rendition of his “Must Be Right, Can't Be Wrong" are captured in their debut performance.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM sattelite radio and can be streamed on- demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

Jabbo Smith was born in Pembroke, Georgia in 1908, the son of a barber and church organist. After the death of his father he moved, at age four, to Savannah. His mother found it increasingly difficult to care for him, and at age six Jabbo was placed in the Jenkins Orphanage Home in Charleston. His mother found employment in the Home in order to be near to her son.

The Jenkins Home placed heavy emphasis on music education and produced a number of important jazzmen who received their first public playing experience while touring with one of several student orchestras. It was in this setting that Jabbo took up trumpet and trombone at the age of eight, and began touring the country with a student band at age ten. He left the Jenkins Home at sixteen and headed North to make his mark on music. He made, and kept, a promise to his mother never to work for less than one hundred dollars a week, a good wage in those days.

Jabbo found employment in a number of top bands, including Charlie Johnson's Paradise Ten—an all-star line-up that included Benny Carter on alto. Jabbo also played with Duke Ellington, substituting for Bubber Miley on a 1927 Okeh recording of “Black and Tan Fantasy." Jabbo turned down an offer to join the Ellington Orchestra in 1927 because he considered the offer of $65 per week too low.

In 1928, Jabbo joined the pit band of the Broadway show Keep Shufflin,' playing with Fats Waller, organ; James P. Johnson, piano; and Garvin Bushnell, alto. He recorded four sides with this group under the name, the Louisiana Sugar Babes.

Jabbo was stranded in Chicago in 1929 while on the road with Keep Shufflin' following the gangland killing of Arnold Rothstein, the financier of the show, who is also known as the infamous fixer of the 1919 Chicago “Blacksox" World Series. By this time, Jabbo was a seasoned, creative jazz musician and found plenty of work in Chicago.

At the request of Mayo Williams of Chicago's Brunswick Record Company, Jabbo formed his quintet, the Rhythm Aces; and in 1929 they recorded nineteen sides. But, as Jabbo once remarked, “These recordings for Brunswick didn't go anywhere." Since then, they've been reissued several times. Today, they're considered an important piece of jazz history. In his lifetime, Jabbo Smith never received recognition for his talents as an important jazz trumpeter and a highly original jazz composer.

Toward the end of the '30s, Jabbo gradually withdrew from serious music activity. He led a group at the 1939 World's Fair in New York and gigged in a Newark, NJ club called the Alcazar.

In the early '40s, Jabbo moved to Milwaukee where he married, played locally and enjoyed the security of a steady job with the Avis car rental agency. One of the most influential trumpet players of Jazz in the 1920s, Jabbo Smith languished in quiet oblivion for twenty years.

Jabbo's rediscovery in the 1960s led to an active musical career—recording, performing, and composing original music. He said it was this activity late in life that gave him the most satisfaction, and was what he hoped to be remembered for.

Jabbo died in January 1991 at age 82.

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