As such he was claimed by many classic jazzmen of later generations to be their mentor and best pal, and the progenitor of the classic New Orleans jazz-trumpet style. All this could be done partly because Bolden vanished from the scene a good 10 years before any jazz was recorded, so it was one man's story against another's. Author Don Marquis a decade or more ago established the more prosaic but equally fascinating truth in all this.
Bolden came from the black quarter in New Orleans and adopted the rougher, more carefree style and approach to music of this area, as compared with Creoles such as Bechet, Tio, and Morton, who combined syncopated rhythms with more refined and elaborate arrangements. Bolden learn cornet as a teenager and began playing in bands as a part-timer in the early 1890's. By 1895 he had formed his own group, taking over leadership of guitarist Charlie Galloway's unit and playing dances, picnics, and private dances. By the turn of the century Bolden's clear, ringing tone and his use of blue phrases and notes in playing the repertoire of the time, plus his undoubted gift for showmanship, had brought him a degree of prominence unmatched by previous small-band leaders. The next five years saw him in his pomp, playing as a full-time professional musician (a rarity at the time in New Orleans) and being a big draw at saloons, dance halls, outdoor picnics in parks around New Orleans, and on the occasional parades his band would be a part of. His style of playing is unlikely to have contained any real improvisation; it is more likely that the band's approaches to jigs, rags, and quadrilles they played was to heighten their rhythmic and timbral color, and to incorporate occasional melodic embellishments. Eyewitnesses state that Bolden's party pieces was to play a slow blues melody with great exaggeration and "dirty tones," which always sent the audiences wild.
Bolden's erratic behavior verging on violence led to his arrest, on Labor Day in 1906, for dangerous mental derangement, possibly exacerbated by his heavy drinking. A year later he was committed by his family to a mental institution in Jackson, Mississippi, where he stayed until his death in 1931.
No recording available
jazz styles: by 1910 he was already working casually with regular bands. His earliest reputation was created by his playing there up to 1916, when he decided to travel and moved all over the South and Midwest, ending up in Chicago in 1917. There he played with transplanted New Orleans men such as King Oliver and Freddie Keppard, but his next permanent employment came from orchestra leader and composer Will Marion Cook, who hired him to be a member of his concert orchestra for a 1919 tour of Europe. Bechet, a nonreader, had been hired for his improvisatory skills and was featured in a blues which had European critics and musicians in raptures.
Even geniuses have their problems, though, and although Bechet discovered the soprano saxophone with which he would be forever identified in London on this tour, and even played at Buckingham Palace, he was deported from England for a minor affray in 1922. Back in New York, in early 1923 he hitched up with businessman/musician Clarence Williams and recorded with Bessie Smith, later having duets with Louis Armstrong on the classic Clarence Williams Blue Five recordings for Okeh. He also played with Duke Ellington before returning to Europe, where in Paris he played for the Revue Negre. He also travled as far as Russia and Germany. Another affray, in Paris in 1929, led to a jail sentence. The following year, on his release, Bechet headed back to New York. He found the scene changed dramatically, and got work where he could, mainly with the Noble Sissle Orchestra, for whom he worked sporadically for man years. Having become something of a back number, Bechet managed some spirited “hot” sessions for Bluebird in 1932 featuring his trumpeter friend Tommy Ladnier, but the 1930s remained a lean time, and for a while Bechet ran a tailoring shop in Harlem. In 1939 he caught the crest of the gathering wave of enthusiasm for the classic jazz styles expressed by young white purists: his “Summertime,” cut for Blue Note that year, became a modest hit, and he took up regular work on 52nd Street with his pals such as Ladnier and the irrepressible Mezz Mezzrow. He made a series of classics for both Bluebird and Blue Note, including a famous session with Jelly Roll Morton and a legendary 1940 trio date with Earl Hines and Baby Dodds. He and Mezzrow also made series of immortal sides for Mezzrow’s King Jazz label. Bechet even managed a reunion on record with Armstrong, but prima donna antics between the two made it a muted affair. Bechet eventually found himself spending the latter part of the 1940s in isolation from the revivalist mainstream.
His career was saved by a move to France in 1949, following a triumphant return to the Paris Festival of that year, where he’d even jammed with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. Bechet used groups of enthusiastic young French traditionalists for musical support and enjoyed acclaim throughout Europe. Moving to Antibes in 1951 and marrying for a second time, Bechet eventually became something of a national hero, and after his death, from cancer in 1959, a large sculpted likeness was erected in Antibes. Nobody in New Orleans at the time had similar ideas
playing around Pittsburgh in her early teens as Mary Lou Burley (her stepfathers surname) before leaving town with Seymour and Jeanette, a vaudeville act, at the age of 15 in 1925. That same year she joined a carnival band run by John Williams, whom she subsequently married at the age of 16. The couple moved to Memphis and joined Terrence Holder’s band, which subsequently metamorphosed in Andy Kirk’s band when the ex-sax player joined in 1929 and took the group over. William stuck with Kirk, being promoted in 1930 to first-choice pianist and a key supplier of material and arrangements to the band, especially as they had now begun a recording career. Throughout the 1930s Williams became the fountainhead of the Andy Kirk band’s original sound, material, and image as well as supplying fine freelance arrangements to many of the emergent swing bands, Benny Goodman’s included. The longevity of much of the Kirk band’s material on record is chiefly down to Williams’s outstanding work, which includes the song bearing the famous title, “What’s Your Story, Morning Glory?”
In 1942 she left the band and formed her own small group, which at one time featured the young drummer Art Blakey. Now settled in New York, she had divorced Williams and married Harold “Shorty” Baker, who in the 1940s became a member of Duke Ellington’s band. For Ellington she wrote the superb “Trumpets No End,” a reworking of “Blue Skies,” in 1946, while also continuing to concentrate on her own material, which at that time included the long-term composition of her Zodiac Suite, portions of which were premiered in a Town Hall concert. In the mid- 1940s Williams was also an assiduous supporter of the young bop artist, contributing charts to Dizzy Gillespie’s band as well as hiring young boppers for her own units. The influence was also felt in reverse, as she updated her own previously swing-based style in the face of the innovations of Monk and Powell. Williams had a quiet time of it in the late 1940s and moved to Europe for the first half of the 1950s; by the time she returned to the US she had begun to be involved in religious activities. One of the highlights of the 1950s for her was the performance of her Zodiac Suite at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival by the Dizzy Gillespie big band: the performance was taped by Norman Granz and subsequently released on LP, and it has recently been reissued on CD. By the end of the 1950s, Williams was a long way off the pace of the music, but had turned her attention to its history and its preservations, giving many concerts, demonstrations, talks and lectures on the development of a great many jazz styles and mannerisms, especially those which applied to the piano.
She continued to become further immersed in her religious practice, although this did not curtail her activities right into the 1970s. In 1979 she embarked on a brave venture, playing a season of duets with Cecil Taylor, some of which were recorded and released on the Pablo Label. Two years before that she had been appointed to the teaching staff of Duke University in North Carolina. She taught and played until shortly before her death, in 1981, by then easily the most honored and decorated female instrumentalist and a major figure in her own right in jazz history.
Edward Kennedy Ellington, born in Washington, DC, known as “Duke” due to his love of elegance, has long been recognized as the most protean creative figure in the first five decades of jazz. As Miles Davis once commented, “Everybody ought to get down on their knees one day and thank Duke.” Other players have been as brilliant, innovative, and occasionally influential in any given decade – Davis, Armstrong, Parker, Coltrane – and certainly these players were all greater improvisers than Ellington. But his total achievement consistently evolving from the 1920s to the 1970s cannot be gainsaid.
Ellington grew up in a close family, part of the capital’s black middle class. He studied art and music while at Armstrong High and took private lessons as well as watching pianists playing around town. By 1918 he was running small bands for dances and parties, the same year he married Edna Thompson. Some of the members of his first great band were already colleagues, including Sonny Greer, Arthur Whetsol, and Otto Hardwicke. After a shaky start, Ellington and his friends settled in Ney York in spring 1923, calling themselves the Washingtonians. They hustled some club work before landing a residency at the Hollywood Club. By 1926 Harry Carney, Fred Guy, Joe Nanton, and Bubber Miley were members; the following year the band recorded classics such as “East St Louis ToodleOo” and “BlackEt Tan Fantasy,” with “The Mooche” following in 1928. That same year saw the arrival of Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams and a full year of employment at the Cotton Club, whose radio link gave Ellington wider exposure. In 1930 he enjoyed his first big hit with “Mood Indigo.” By the time Ellington left the Cotton Club in 1933 and made his first triumphant European tour, he was already a star.
Ellington prospered through the 1930s, touring across America, making movie shorts and writing hits such as “Solitude” and “Sophisticated Lady” and innovative extended works such as “Diminuendo and Crescendo In Blue” In 1939 composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn came aboard, bringing with him “Take The ‘A’ Train.” Other new recruits included bassist Jimmy Blanton and sax man Ben Webster. Some feel that the opening years of the 1940s were the peak of Duke’s creative development. Small masterpieces like “Concerto for Cootie,” “Ko-Ko,” “Bojangles,” “Sepia Panorama,” and “Harlem Airshaft” and the first of his suites, Black, Brown and Beige, a 50-minute work premiered at Carnegie Hall in early 1943, are prime example. Ellington kept up annual Carnegie Hall concerts where he would premiere a new major work until the end of the decade. Ellington’s was one of very few orchestras not to disband during the difficult 1947 –50 period. His innovatory role had also been usurped by bebop. The band was increasingly subsidized by Ellington’s songwriting royalties.
Like Miles Davis, Ellington may have been tempted to claim after his 1956 triumph at the Newport Jazz Festival, “I’ve never been away.” Such Sweet Thunder, The Newport Suite, The Queen’s Suite, and The Nutcracker demonstrate his renewed ambition. He was also part of Ella Fitzgerald’s Song Book series. The early 1960s saw big-band recordings with Louis Armstrong, Count Base, and Coleman Hawkins; John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Max Roach appeared in two small-group sessions. Ellington also collaborated with Frank Sinatra. His own work was uneven, The Far East Suite of 1967 being a standout; his New Orleans Suite of 1969-70 was the last major success. Ellington also mounted three Sacred Concerts in this period, before succumbing to cancer in 1974.
From a poor Jewish family, Goodman began clarinet studies at 11; a year or so later he appeared on stage with local bandleader Benny Meroff. He was first noticed by the wider world as a member of the Ben Pollack orchestra, making his debut recordings with them in 1926. His solo style at this stae was a combination of Jummy Noone, Ted Lewis, and Leon Rappolo. Leaving Pollack in 1929, Goodman became a successful freelancer in New York. By 1934 Goodman wanted his own band: landing a spot on a national NBC radio broadcast, he played New York’s hotels and music rooms and waited. Sent out on a tour to the Californian coast, Goodman and his band played in a “hot” smooth-swinging style which left their audiences bewildered until they reached the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. Here the band got an overwhelming response from the young audience, many of whom were familiar with the band from the radio broadcast, which was late-night in New York but mid-evening in California due to the time difference. Within months Goodman was national craze and the Swing Era was officially launched.
Goodman was dubbed the “King of Swing”: his reign lasted almost to the end of the 1930s, long enough at least to score a triumph at Carnegie Hall in early 1938, the first jazz artist to present a complete evening’s entertainment in that august setting. Goodman’s hankering after the approval of “serious music” performers led to his performing and recording clarinet music by Mozart and commissioning Bela Bartok to write Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano. However, more substantial musical progress was made through the vehicle of Goodman’s small groups, inaugurated in 1935 and utilizing during the 1930s a racially mixed personnel (virtually unheard of at that time) of Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, and Gene Krupa. This was expanded during the early 1940s to include the guitar genius Charlie Christian, trumpeter Cootie Williams, and saxophonist Georgie Auld.
By that time Goodman had been overtaken in popularity by such bands as those of Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, and Tommy Dorsey, although in 1942 he enjoyed a million-seller with “Why Don’t You Do Right?” featuring a newcomer called Peggy Lee. After WWII Goodman started his policy of running a big band only for specific periods. By this time he was suffering acute pain from chronic back problems, and this physical handicap did much to dictate the shape of his subsequent career. In 1955 he was the subject of a Hollywood biopic, leading his own band in the making of the soundtrack; later in the decade he made US State Department-sponsored tours of Europe and the Far East: this proved to be the prelude for the much-ballyhooed Goodman visit to Russia in 1962. Goodman worked when it suited him during the 1970s and early 1980s; he combined excitingly with George Benson for a small-group workout on US TV in 1975, but otherwise paced himself carefully. Goodman’s unwillingness to incorporate later jazz developments relegated him to the jazz backwaters during his later career, but the exemplary standards he set remain a golden and instructive legacy for those who have followed.
Horace, who also played piano, led bands, and was a gifted arranger. Henderson received a good education, majoring in chemistry and mathematics at Atlanta University, but during a 1920 postgraduate sojourn in New York he worked part-time as a pianist and became known to W.C. Handy, who employed him in his band. In 1922 he took work as house pianist and recording producer at the independent Black Swan records, the following year appearing for other labels as an in-demand accompanist for a huge range of singers, including Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters. Late that year he landed a job at the Club Alabam, and in January 1924 began leading his own band there. Before long he was resident with his band at the Roseland Ballroom and had a wealth of talent employed in its ranks, including Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey, and, most importantly, Louis Armstrong. Henderson’s was the premier big band in jazz, and not just because of the strong solo characters: he and his staff were evolving a method of arrangement which would in time become incorporated into every jazz big band, whatever style it played. Using the then prevalent two-beat rhythm of early jazz, Henderson concentrated on using each instrumental group – trumpets, trombones, reeds, piano, rhythm – in contrast and counterpoint to each other, thereby automatically providing color, contrast, and secondary interest to each melody and harmonic progression, especially as the idea of riffs (simple repetitive melodic devices) evolved fully.
Henderson’s arrangements were models of simplicity and clarity, his methods easily adaptable to the demands of swing rhythm as the more even four-beat feel of the 1930s became the norm. Yet Henderson himself was not the principal beneficiary of his own innovations: by all accounts in 1928 he suffered a major car accident, receiving head injuries which left a permanent mark: he left most day-to-day affairs after that to his wife. By the early 1930s Henderson was writing arrangements for many bands and with the rise of Benny Goodman in 1934-35 he was a prime source for Goodman’s superior swing feel.
Yet the inadequacies of Henderson’s own leadership can easily be detected when a Henderson band and a Goodman band performance of a song – for example, “King Porter Stomp” or “Honeysuckle Rose” – are compared, the fire and discipline in the Goodman band being in a different class. Henderson maintained a band with varying personnel and success and with regular breaks, up to 1939, when he briefly became Goodman’s pianist; after that his own band leading was occasional, and he was most often employed by stars such as Ethel Waters, and Goodman for playing or arranging work. A return of sorts to active leadership in 1950 was curtailed by a stroke, after which Henderson was virtually housebound until his death in December 1952.
BORN 1912, DIED 1986
MUSICAL SELECTION: "Blues in C Sharp Minor", "My First Impression of You"
One of the most urbane and accomplished pianist/leaders to come to prominence in the 1930's, Wilson was born in Austin, Texas, but grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, where his father was English master and his mother librarian at Tuskegee University. Young Theodore learned violin and piano as a youth, discovering jazz from 78rpm records while he was studying for a music major at Talladega College. After a move to Detroit in 1929 Wilson began playing with local bands, including Speed Webb, for whom he made many arrangements, staying until 1931, when he moved via Toledo to Chicago, initially working with Erskine Tate before also playing with Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Noone.
Wilson's arrival in New York in 1933 to play with Benn Carter presaged the beginning of his larger reputation. Recording with the Chocolate Dandies for John Hammond (who had arranged his transfer from Chicago), Wilson was quickly appreciated among New York musicians for his rock-steady left hand, his harmonic sophistication, and his immaculate righ-hand technique. He was also an inspired arranger, whether for small or large groups, and he was the perfect musical coordinator for the decade-long series of recordings undertaken by Brunswick and featuring assorted personnel, often with singer Billie Holiday as the focal point. These recordings, especially those featuring Holiday in tandem with Lester Youn, have justly become regarded as some of the crown jewels of jazz recording.
By 1935 Wilson had been inducted into the Benny Goodman setup, initially as part of his Trio (one of the first racially mixed groups of the swing era), recording and touring with the leader as a separate musical unit to his big hand. Wilson's superb left hand, providing accurate rhythmic and harmonic support, knitted the group's efforts together while his righ-hand counterpoint added the dimension of musical converstion which led Goodman's group to be termed the first exponents of "chamber jazz." In 1936 Lionel Hampton's arrival made it a quartet and one of the most popular small groups in jazz history.
Wilson left in 1939 to form his own short-lived big band. After its demise in 1940 he formed a sextet, which appeared regularly at Cafe' Society in New York and recorded for a number of labels, especially Musicraft, where he led his own sessions and arranged dates featuring Maxine Sullivan and, from 1946 onward, Sarah Vaughan. By the mid-1940s Wilson was reappearing with Goodman's small groups for short stints, but the rest of the decade was largely taken up with teaching and broadcasting work. Wilson spent most of the latter part of his career involved in teaching and in various music capacities for the broadcaster CBS, interspering this with appearances at major festivals with hand-picked groups (he was with one such band at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival) or brief reunions with Benny Goodman. The original quartet made a last record together in 1963 and played occasional concerts. Wilson continued to make records up to the time of his death.
BORN 1910, DIED 1956
MUSICAL SELECTION: "Tiger Rag"
For many years regarded as a nonpareil jazz pianist in terms of technique and harmonic imagination, more than four decades after his death Tatum still has few if any peers in these areas. Born in Toledo, Ohio, and from birth suffering from blindness in one and severe limitations in the other, Tatum was drawn to
music from boyhood, taking up both violin and piano. By the time he was 13 the violin had been jettisoned in favor of piano, with Tatum receiving some formal training while at Toledo School of Music. He mastered the Braille method of reading music as well as using powerful glasses to read ordinary manuscripts, but the majority of his learning was done after leaving school. Furing the 1920s he learned from records, piano rolls and other means, perfecting the most effortless stride technique ever heard as well as embarking on his lifetime fascination with ever more sophisticated chord substitutions and elaborate rearrangement of popular tunes, overlaid by a richly baroque right-hand technique and a uniquely flexible approach to metric time. Tatum was already known by word of mouth before his arrival in New York in 1932, but his debut there as accompanist to Adelaide Hall, followed by an engagement as a solo at the Onyx club and his first recordings (including the legendary "Tiger Rag" at what was commonly acknowledged by other pianists to be an "impossible" tempo) caused astonishment.
Tatum was quickly and widely acknowledged as so far ahead of the pack (including his original ido, Fats Waller) as to be in a league of his own. By the mid-1930s he was internationally known as a true phenomenon on his instrument, his later piano-guitar-bass trio with Tiny Grimes a model for hundreds of other piano trios to follow in its level of musical interplay.
Tatum's fame breached parochial jazz borders, bringing musicians such as Horowitz and Toscanini to Harlem clubs after Carnegie Hall performances to witness his genius. His innovations, often skirted by pianists overawed by his technique, were most successfully incorporated by sax players, from Coleman Hawkins onward, who were able to
transfer Tatum's quicksilver harmonic thinking to their melody instruments.
Tatum's popularity took a tumble in the late 1940s as jazz fashions changed and other, more startling and
energetic styles came to the fore. However, in the 1950s he signed to Norman Granz's label and began in 1953 on a project to record one of the taped over the next three years, is available on CD on the Pablo label: the solo performances alone take up seven CDs, while the group performances range from a trio session with bass and drums to separte dates with Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Lionel Hampton, Buddy DeFrance, and Harry Edison. Tatum was often criticized for being an overwhelming accompanist: here he shows that, with player of commensurate stature, he complements busily but always appositely. With the solo performances, he so thoroughly rethought the standards he played that they became vessels for his own musical messages. Tatum died in 1956
Fats Waller: BORN 1903; DIED 1943
Musical Selection: "Honeysuckle Rose", "Ain't Misbehavin' ", "Jitterbug Waltz"
Thomas "Fats" Waller was not only one of the greatest stride pianists in jazz and an inspried small-group leader, but was also a world-class tunesmith, an equable and occasinally moving singer, and one of the most charismatic personalities to emerge in the music-entertainment business between the wars.
Waller was born in New York City into a Baptist lay preacher's family; the young Fats played organ at this father's services and was given a thorough training at the keyboard by private teachers. By his mid-teens Fats was working as a professional in the local Harlem theaters. Wall's mother died in 1920 and he moved in with family friends; through them he James P. Johnson, who gave him a gilt-edged introduction into the world of Harlem stride piano. During the 1920's he began recording for Okeh as an accompanying most of the great acts appearing in New York cabaret at the time, including Bessie Smith.
Waller benefited from association with Okeh's Clarence Williams, having some of his early compositions such as "Squeeze Me" published in 1923. By the late 1920s Waller had begun regularly appearing on local radio as a pianist and singer and had also met up with lyricist Andy Razaf. Together they began writing for various New York theater shows, including Keep Shufflin' (1928) and Hot Chocolates (1929). Songs such as "Honeysuckle Rose," "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "Black and Blue" made their debut in such productions before the end of the decade. During this time Waller began his association with the Victor record company, one which would survive until his death; some of this earliest sides for Victor were with Fats Waller's Buddies. He would record a varied program of music for Victor in the next few years, including solo piano pieces and duets such as "Handful of Keys" and "Smashing Thirds."
Waller began traveling widely in ther early 1930s as well as assiduously making radio broadcasts, while playing in a number of different bands. He reached Europe for the first time in 1932, but the most significant musical development was the formation in 1934 of Fats Waller and his Rhythm, a band of varying size (but usally a sextet) most regularly featuring trumpeter Herman Autry, saxophonist Gene Sedric, and guitarist Al Casey. This band became his primary musical vehicle and he made literally hundreds of records for RCA Victor with them. These ranged from the low satire of "Big Chief De Sota" to the slapstick of "The Joint Is Jumpin'" to the melancholy of "My Very Good Friend The Milkman" to the gentle brilliance of "Jitterbug Waltz." Furing the 1930s Waller rose steadily in public profile to become one of the most well-known entertainers on radio and a constant presence in the charts. He toured constantly, sometimes sticking on the West Coast for a time, or in Chicago, but always using New York as his base. By mid-decade he was hearing the siren call of Hollywood, appearing in films until 1938 when he was one of the stars in Stormy Weather, with Lena Horne. Waller died in that winter on the trans-American railway en route to New York from a long engagement in Los Angeles, succumbing to pneumonia after registering symptoms prior to his trip. Waller is remembered for his ready burlesquing wit, but he had higher aspirations: in London in 1938 he recorded his London Suite, a set of six conceivable he would have produced considerably more such instrumental compositions.
Willie “The Lion” Smith: Born 1897; Died 1973
Musical Selection: “Crazy Blues”
Smith was born with the considerable name of William Henry Berthol Bonaparte Bertholoff, coming from a mixed-race marriage, Black and Jewish, but with his father dying when Willie was just four, and his mother’s subsequent marriage, the young Bertholoff later took on his stepfather’s surname. Smith was born in Goshen, New York, but grew up in Newark, New Jersey, learning piano from his mother, who was a church player. Smith’s main musical education was, by his own account, somewhat haphazard, but he was a quick learner and by 1914 he’d made his professional debut. Smith was soon plunged into the hectic and informal music world of Harlem, learning the emergent ragtime strain peculiar to the Eastern Seaboard, which, combined with elements of the gospel piano style and the urge to improvise on dance forms, would soon evolve into what would later be termed “stride.” He also learned the essential style accessories for the stride pianist, from his hat and cane (often accompanied by the biggest cigar available) to the braggadocio speech styles and flamboyant keyboard techniques, all of which would also be developed into a personal identifying trait by pianists such as Luckey Roberts, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller, and which were very evident in the attitude evinced by New Orleans keyboard man Jelly Roll Morton, whom Smith often saw playing in New York prior to World War I.
In late 1916 Smith volunteered for active service in WWI, after a training period being shipped off to the Western Front in summer 1917. Trained in artillery, he proved highly capable and was promoted to the rank of sergeant; he also claimed to have picked up his nickname, “The Lion,” there, bestowed on him by an officer inspecting the front, who was told of his expertise with large-bore artillery and his unusual stamina. Smith made sure the nickname struck. Having left the military in 1919, Smith returned to his old ways in Harlem, fast becoming one of the standouts in the emergent stride school, striking up friendships during the 1920s with the likes of Fats Waller and, especially, Duke Ellington. Smith began appearing on records (he was the accompanist to Mamie Smith on her trend-setting “Crazy Blues” of 1920) and ran his own small group at Harlem’s Leroy’s as well as, later one, the Onyx Club, Pod’s, and, finally, Jerry’s.
Smith was a legend among fellow professionals but largely unknown to the general public until he began recording a series of piano solos for Decca in 1935. The striking individualism of these brought him a ready audience on both sides of the Atlantic, which he began to exploit after World War II through regular tours, even reaching North Africa in 1949-50. After that Smith was a regular part of the jazz and entertainment scene, his compelling character and stylized mode of dress making him instantly recognizable. During the 1960s he began to feel the need to document his life and the music he had grown up with: in 1965 he produced (with George hoefer) his autobiography, Music On My Mind, while for RCA in 1969 he recorded The Memoirs of Willie “The Lion” Smith, a two-disc LP set of his talking and playing. Smith died in 1973 an honored and feted man in the US and Europe.