Remembering pianist Derek Smith

Pianist Derek Smith performing at the 1991 Pensacola Jazz Party.
Pianist Derek Smith performing at the 1991 Pensacola Jazz Party.

Derek Smith was guest pianist for two Pensacola JazzFests in the early 1990s. There was a trio with bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Bobby Rosengarden. Derek also was pianist for our 1991 Pensacola Jazz Party. Accompanying photos were from that event.

Also, Derek was also guest pianist for the first Pensacola ball—also early 90s. That ball was held at Naval Aviation Museum. He commented at the time that he was at home with all these airplanes. Growing up in England during WWII and not quite old enough for the military, all the youth were trained as aircraft spotters.

Our guest column is courtesy of Sanford Josephson, author, who also fondly remembers Derek. This appears courtesy of Jersey Jazz, newsletter of New Jersey Jazz Society.

Norman Vickers, 10-5-2016

By Sanford Josephson

Derek Smith, 85, pianist, August 17, 1931, London — August 21, 2016, Township of Washington, NJ. Smith emigrated to New York City in 1957, and he quickly became active playing in the New York studios, helped greatly by his friendship with the bassist Milt Hinton. When I interviewed Smith in 2008 for my book, Jazz Notes: Interviews Across the Generations (Praeger/ABC-Clio), he recalled receiving a phone call from Hinton, who said, “Get yourself down to Columbia 30th (a legendary New York studio known for its natural acoustics).” Then, Hinton added, “By the way, you do play the organ?” Smith’s response was: “Of course. It has keys, doesn’t it?” The gig was for a recording by the New Christy Minstrels, and Smith said Hinton helped him get through it, even though he had never played the organ.

Pianist Derek Smith.
Pianist Derek Smith.

Smith also reminisced about the studio era, which lasted roughly from the mid-‘50s through the mid’60s. “There’s nothing like it anymore,” he said. “There was a need for musicians; we were all really busy. I was doing The Tonight Show, and then in the morning you’d do some recordings with some singers, and you’d do jingles. But nothing stays the same. The business changed, and all of a sudden there were rock ‘n roll bands, and all the entertainers went out to California.”

Bucky Pizzarelli described Smith to Jersey Jazz as “a fantastic piano player” and recalled playing with him on The Tonight Show. He also pointed out that Smith spent some time playing with Benny Goodman, an experience Smith also related to me. “I had a great friend, the drummer, Mousey Alexander,” he said, “who called me one day and said, ‘I’m going to get you with Benny.’ Before I knew it, there I am rehearsing with this big band, scared stiff, because Benny had this reputation. But I could read, and he put up Fats Waller’s ‘Stealin’ Apples’. The piano chorus was in the key of D, so I passed the test.

“I didn’t hear from Benny for years, but then, later on, when I’m really busy doing The Tonight Show and doing everybody’s record dates, he called me to do weekends. So I went out and played weekends with Benny all over the place. Then, he asked me to go to Australia, and The Tonight Show said they would get a sub for me so I could go. It was a beautiful band — Zoot Sims on tenor saxophone, Joe Pass on guitar, Peter Appleyard on vibes — and we started out in Sydney, and Zoot got a great big hand, and I got a great big hand; and Benny got pissed about the whole thing. So, we cursed each other out, finished out the tour, and never saw each other again. But everybody’s got a similar story about Benny.”

Smith was a fixture at the New Jersey Jazz Society festivals at Waterloo Village in Stanhope, NJ, during the 1980s. He usually performed in the “Piano Spectacular”. In 1986, for example, he was part of a group of pianists that also included Dick Hyman, Ray Bryant, Rio Clemente, Dick Wellstood, Joanne Brackeen, Art Hodes, and Jimmy Rowles. Hyman also remembers playing with Smith in duo piano settings. “He was my most frequent partner in duo-piano situations,” Hyman told Jersey Jazz. “We could read each other’s minds.”

At the 1988 Waterloo festival, Smith played in a trio consisting of Hinton on bass and Bobby Rosengarden on drums. That trio played together regularly in the ‘70s every summer at Disney World. “All year,” Smith told me, “Disney World would go with a regular trio, and then, for the hottest two weeks of the year, they would import Bobby, Milt, and myself, and we would play for two weeks. It was good for us. We would get away for awhile, and I was a hero to my kids because we got this nice big villa, and they got all the rides for free.” Smith, Hinton, and Rosengarden made one album together, The Trio (Chiaroscuro: 1994). “We played all the things we had practiced in Disney World,” Smith said, “bossa novas and straight ahead things . . . We should have done another album, but we all got busy and went in different directions.”

Concert producer Bruce Gast recalled to Jersey Jazz that Smith “was one of my early successes with the jazz series at the Watchung Arts Center. His exuberant playing style allowed me to use the term ‘keyboard pyrotechnics’ in publicity, and his personal magnetism helped to build the audience for his work and other solo pianists.” In later years, Gast said, Smith introduced “a piano version of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ that was breathtaking, although he always showed humility, saying it lacked the fullness of the band version . . . I’m sorry I don’t have any funny Derek Smith stories to tell. He brought his own bag of humorous recollections to every outing, often reaching back to his time with the Goodman band. These tales spiced up each performance, leaving me and the audiences laughing.” Al Kuehn, producer of the annual Chicken Fat Ball in Maplewood, said Smith’s death, “hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew him well, and he played many times for various concerts I put on. Always cheerful, always pleasant, and always came to play. One of the greats.”

Smith started playing piano professionally at the age of 14. While still in London, he joined a band led by saxophonist John Dankworth. He also recorded for the British Broadcasting Corporation before deciding to leave London for the United States. In New York, he met trumpeter Doc Severinsen at a society gig, and that led to his becoming a regular on The Tonight Show when Severinsen was named leader of the NBC Orchestra. His Progressive Records album, Love For Sale, was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1989.

His death notice, posted in The New York Times on August 21, 2016, said Smith’s “immense talent earned the respect and admiration of everyone who knew him.” That is borne out by some of the comments made to Jersey Jazz by those who played with him. “One thing you could say about Derek Smith — he always came to play and play 100 per cent, no matter what the circumstances were,” said clarinetist/saxophonist Ken Peplowski. “My greatest joy,” he added, “was introducing his playing to younger musicians who were soon in awe of his astonishing virtuosity, energy and musicality. He could lift an entire band with his playing and good humor, and he certainly did that for me countless times. Derek was a great inspiration to be with, and I’ll miss him terribly.” Trumpeter Randy Sandke pointed out that, “Derek always had a smile on his face and gave his all. He was a total musician, extremely versatile, but he shined most in small group and solo settings. A ferocious swinger, he was the spark plug of any band he graced. He’ll be dearly missed.”

Survivors include his wife, Shirley; daughter, Valerie Anderson, her husband, Brad, and grandchildren, Jared and Ryan of Emerson, NJ; and daughter, Helen Collins and husband, Matt, and grandchildren, Samantha and Trevor, of the Boston area.

(c) Reprinted from Jersey Jazz Journal, the New Jersey Jazz Society. All rights reserved.

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