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Interview with Johnny Smith

Interview Johnny Smith Interview (1976)
On Django Reinhardt
On Jazz
Avante Garde
Schoenberg's Serenade
The Gibson "Johnny Smith" Guitar
On Amplifiers
Moonlight In Vermont"
The following interview with Johnny Smith was published in Guitar Magazine in August 1976 under the title - "Johnny Smith - King of Good Taste". The interviewers were George Clinton and Lance Bosman.
Johnny Smith, reluctant to consider himself an out and out jazz musician,had, over the years declined invitations to perform here with the usual jazz ensembles and consequently was little known to English guitarists.
However, in 1952 his group recorded a tune called Moonlight in Vermont
which received rave notices, was duly named Jazz Record Of The Year by
Downbeat and soon became a hit in this country. For guitarists the
interest was in Johnny Smith's tasteful playing, the clean quality of his sound, and his skillful voicing of melody with chords. (The famous six chord sequence was mistakenly played with the melody note on the first string thereby providing a dexterity test for aspiring jazz guitarists).
Johnny Smith was born on 25 June 1922 in Alabama and grew up in Portland,Maine. Early musical stimulus was provided by his father, who had a reputation as a good 5 string banjo player. Although Johnny was taught the violin he enjoyed more accompanying his father on guitar, and he switched permanently to that instrument in his teens.
His first engagements were with country bands but in 1940 he joined The
Airport Boys, a group playing a variety of music, but mostly pop and
swing. During this period the styles of Django Reinhardt, Charlie
Christian and Les Paul worked their way with him - and his arrangements
for the band - and he became a swinger.
In the war he enlisted as a pilot but an eye disability grounded him and
he joined the Airforce band, eventually making first cornet. After the war he returned to Portland working in night clubs and the local radio
station. It was through the efforts of a friendly station programme
director that led to an invitation in 1946 to join the NBC staff in New
York. His work involved playing and recording a much wider range of music, from popular music on the Ed Sullivan Show to Berg's opera Wozzeck (with the NBC Symphony Orchestra). He also played bookings in Birdland and Embers as well as going on tours with his own combos.
In 1958 Johnny Smith left NBC and settled in Colorado Springs where he now leads a busy life running his own music business, Johnny Smith Music Inc.
He still manages to slip away for short tours and teaching seminars. He
came to England for the first time in June 1976 with the Joe Bushkin
Quartet accompanying Bing Crosby's show at the London Palladium.
The authors were introduced to the great guitarist by his old penpal Jack Oliver. Johnny gave them a good cross section of his views on various topics, and they took the opportunity to ask him about the performance and subsequent recording of Schoenberg's Serenade which he did on plectrum guitar way back in 1949. On a second visit with Lance Bosman there was more time and Johnny played for them on his Gibson (Johnny Smith) guitar without amp.
He played some jazz standards, including a marvelous arrangement of
Jerome Kern's I ’ Old Fashioned. They were completely taken by surprise by the power of his inventiveness and control over the instrument, there
seemed to be no musical idea that was impossible for him to express.
Incredibly fast runs, complex voicings were all presented with such care
and great feeling for nuance and dynamics that the effect was
breathtaking. After playing some interesting compositions of his own he
went on to perform a few classical standards, Sevilla by Albeniz, Nortena, a waltz by Ponce, Mussorgsky's The Old Castle, and an arrangement of The Girl With The Flaxen Hair by Debussy which was a revelation as they had only heard poor versions which relied on harmonics in an effort to make the music fit the guitar. His interpretations of these classics were very satisfying. All the 'guitar' pieces were performed miraculously by the pick note for note from the score, and the result prompted no comparisons with the usual performances. These pieces were part of a selection recorded by Johnny Smith for release during the next 12 months(!).
Released as "Legends on Concord CD 4616 in1994.
On Django Reinhardt
A funny thing happened with Django. He was staying at the Hudson Hotel in Manhattan, and I would go up in the afternoon and we'd mess around
together, or maybe I'd take him round the city. And at this time Les Paul was at the Paramount Theater so Django and I went down there to visit him in the afternoon. After that, Django invited me to join him at this club where he was working, the Cafe Society, up town and a real hoity-toity place. I didn't even have on a tie and he hadn't shaved, and I didn't want to go in but he insisted - I had to be his guest for dinner. So we go into this restaurant and the place was full of people in dinner clothes and looking immaculate. They put us at a table way over in the corner - I guess to get us out of the way. So we sat there and all of a sudden Django picked up his knife and started banging on the table. People started looking around because by now dishes were falling off the table, and waiters ran over to try to quieten him down. They spoke French, so finally we found out the reason for the commotion: he was insulted because all the other tables had a little glass vase with a flower in it and our table didn't. And he's just tore up the joint because that was an insult!
We played together, but really, I was just listening because I'd heard him on record and I idolized this man from when I was younger. I'd save up my nickels and as soon as a new record came out I'd be right there. I used to play along with his solos and on the old record player they wouldn't last long and I'd wear them out, so I kept having to get new ones of the old ones too. He really made me realize that the guitar was a musical instrument and not just something to scrape on.
But I never heard him in his true surroundings, which would have been a
French night club, and I'm sure he would have been better there than on
record. I think Django was not comfortable in America with the people he
was working with - it was all organized quickly. He played beautifully,
but I'm sure that wasn't the true Django. A short while ago I had a letter from Don Gibson, with whom I've done a couple of records; and with the letter was a big newspaper write-up about how he had purchased Django's guitar and now he owns that Maccaferri guitar that Django used - all authenticated - and it's a really outstanding guitar.
On jazz
I think it's hard for a jazz musician to find a place where people can
come in and be comfortable and listen to a player without the player
having to be a big attraction and bring in thousands and thousands of
dollars to meet the payroll. You've probably as much jazz here as we have in New York or Los Angeles. I used to play in the Ember Club before it folded in the sixties - it ended up as a gay bar. But because of all this people have the misconception that there's a lost interest in jazz, whereas the opposite is true. There's much more interest than ever before.
The musicians in our colleges for example, and the Stage Bands - up till
two or three years ago all they wanted to do were pieces that were rock
orientated. But in the last two years or so they have completely rejected the whole thing and now they're back to Basie and Kenton; or Woody Herman-type arrangements. And in the meantime our younger musicians have gained by the technology and innovations of jazz and they will take it from here - providing they have a market place. When I give my little seminars in the colleges I always try to make the point that the future of our art depends on the younger player and they've got to make a market place.
There was this market place back in the thirties, and forties, and early
fifties and in my opinion that market place was destroyed by economics.
Our good players like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, and Stan Getz -
people of this caliber who were our good attractions - all of a sudden
started making so much money concertizing. A lot of musicians went to Las Vegas and these high powered gambling places and instead of making 1800 dollars a week are all of a sudden making 10,000 dollars a week. So what happened to our market place which was the nice, intimate night club? What happened was that these artists started charging so much money that in order to survive these night clubs had to start charging admission charges, cover charge, hyping and hustling the people for tremendous prices.
Avant garde
My last engagement at Birdland I'll never forget. We didn't know this but it was just before it folded. Birdland as you know was the center of jazz music. It was the place, and I remember that people would be lined up for a whole block just to get in. But I swore that I'd never play there again.
I was on the bill with this saxophone player and his group, and he had the second set because he was the big name. At the club they had Altex so system. Good quality; a singer could stand back here and be heard
perfectly clear. Now this sax player would start his set and put the Altex mike right down into the bell of his tenor and for forty-five minutes would just doodle. The tempo never let up and everybody went in different directions, just screaming. The evening would start full of people and I would play the first set, but by the end of his second set Birdland would be empty for the rest of the night.
Now I have to believe that we are performing for an audience and that
there has to be some kind of understanding that we share mutually; and
there's no way that you can expect to have any kind of understanding if
you don't know what you're doing. And when it comes to avant garde I'm
convinced that these people have no preconception of what they're going to do.
Also, there's always been an element of people who go through their lives concerned about one thing: to do something completely different. Because they think that in doing so they can accomplish two things: they don't have to go through years of sweat and work, and appreciation of historical aspects of an art to acquire a certain standard. And secondly, just because it's different then it's good. You get this in abstract painting as well as music and it doesn't happen with everybody. There's good in there. There are people who play, or compose atonal music for example which is good. Schoenberg is in my opinion the greatest musician of this century; his music is atonal music, but, as you listen to it you begin to hear very definite preconceived melodies and harmonies.

Schoenberg's Serenade
It wasn't planned for me to play the guitar part and I wouldn't do it
again for anything. What happened to me with this piece was this. They'd
been working on it for a long time - several months, because it was going to be performed in honor of Schoenberg's 75th birthday with the composer there; but this was before he died and he was very sick so he wasn't there. They had this classic guitarist and he couldn't get it together. Schoenberg had written the piece in actual pitch - in bass and treble clef where it sounds, so they'd even taken the parts out and transposed them an octave higher into the guitar's register. But I guess the poor classic guitarist's problem was that he just couldn't follow direction. So on a Friday afternoon I was leaving NBC and waiting at the elevator and these guys came up to me and said they'd like to talk to me. One of them was a violinist with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and they told me that Mitropoulos was thinking of scrubbing it. This would be a disaster because this was Friday and the performance was on the following Wednesday; and they had composers who had come from all over the world for the occasion.
So, they said, was it possible for me to try to do this piece, and they
handed me this thing. I looked at it and I wanted to say that there was
just no way. But they said if you're not willing to at least try it
they're going to throw it out. So I said when is our first rehearsal, how long do I have to look at this music? They said that Monday morning would be the first rehearsal.
Well, I'm an idiot and I say O.K. So this was Friday, and as usual I
didn't have to work Saturday; I went out and made the rounds and really
got myself good and juiced up and got to bed about 5 o'clock. At 6 o'clock the phone rang and a guy says the maestro insists on having a rehearsal at 7 o'clock. I couldn't believe it! I hadn't even looked at the music - I'd hidden it under the bed. He says 'I understand that, but the maestro insists and you've got to come up.' So I go up there to his suite and, Oh, my gosh, I felt terrible. I was just hung over; had the shakes - the whole thing. So, boy, I get my box of mistakes out and put the music up there.
He gives a down beat, and naturally I couldn't find the neck of the
guitar; but when he gave a down beat if I saw that there was something
there well I'd hit it. And I guess that impressed him enough in at least
one respect: that I could follow direction. So we shambled a bit on this
thing and he gave the OK nod and everybody was real happy.
Now, at that time I was working with a man at NBC by the name of Irwin
Kostel who had been pianist with my trio as later became chief arranger
with Sid Cesar. He was one of the finest musicians I'd ever known. He'd
scored all the music for West Side Story, The Sound of Music, all these
things, and he'd won all these Academy Awards for his orchestrations.
Anyway Irwin and I were real good buddies, so I went out to his house and we spent the whole weekend, day and night - bless his heart - sitting at the piano and guitar going through this music. Well, we rehearsed Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday night we performed the work in the theater in the Museum of Modern Art, and it went perfect. Dimitri Mitropoulos was such a warm, beautiful genius that there was no way you could make a mistake; he just gave you that confidence. And they received that piece so well that we encored the whole 7 movements. As with the recording which we did later, I used my Epiphone Emperor without an amp and I really had to pound to try to get this thing heard. And it's not really all that loud on the recording. Incidentally, that Epiphone was stolen during a break at NBC and I never saw it again.
The Gibson 'Johnny Smith' guitar
I like to use the whole range of a guitar and the problem with a lot of
guitars was that the uppermost notes on the 1st string - like the B and
the C - were very hard to play and they wouldn't sustain at all. I
designed a guitar where these notes sustained as well as the rest and I
had John D'Angelico make one for me. Later on Gibson wanted to market the design. It's an acoustic guitar; it isn't a loud guitar like the L5 or the Super 400; but it's a better balanced guitar when it comes to using it electrically. Now, at this time I was no longer working for NBC. I'd settled down in Colorado Springs for an easier life, and when Gibson made me an offer about royalties and so on, I had a thought - right out of a clear blue sky - and on the spur of the moment I said: 'I appreciate that very much, but here I am, living in Colorado, and a few hundred dollars a year isn't really going to help me that much. What if you helped me get
started in business?' They said fine, and that was how the music store and Johnny Smith Music came about. And they even consigned to me a little selection of guitars and amplifiers. It's been a blessing for me in that I can be at home and not have to be traveling around playing in clubs.
Besides, the club scene used to be a wonderful thing but now is so
deteriorated that I can't imagine what it would be like to have to depend on it for a living.
On amplifiers
I've never been able to use a stock amp and the reason for this is
two-fold. Number 1: the acoustic guitar is naturally a very sensitive
instrument. You put energy into the string and this goes into the plate - the top of the guitar, and as you know it produces a crescendo then a
decrescendo. Being of this nature the acoustic guitar has been blamed all through the years for causing feedback problems. You must have seen these dampers that people have on the strings; and nice guitars where the F holes have been taped up. I saw one guy who had his guitar stuffed full of cotton. So the poor guitar gets blamed for what is the amps problem. And the problem is that commercial amps, right from their inception have always been designed to accommodate the solid guitar, by increasing the volume in the bass end. They have a high bass gain and it drops off and a very high treble gain. And it's this bass end that causes the feedback problem. And the designers not appreciating that the amplifiers had anything to do with acoustics never saw the need to give any thought to the problems that this type of amplification curve causes.
But put it this way, If you wanted to choose a fine classic guitar - one
that would project and carry - the last one you would choose would be the one with the deep bass or high pitched treble. But in a sense that's just what the amp designers have gone and done and as a consequence over the
past few years amps have got bigger and bigger, and with more and more
wattage - Coco Cola machines. And there's no end to how far you can go and still not be heard because they don't carry.
Gibsons traced the circuitry of my amp and found it to be 60 watts and
they referred to it as having a perfectly square curve. So, this is what
gives the amp projection. Like a fine classical guitar or violin. These
instruments are not loud. You can be sitting next to the finest classical guitar in the world and it won't be over loud in the room here; yet with that same volume - providing of course that you don't have a bunch of background noise - it'll fill up a concert hall. I see the amplifier in
similar terms - it's the projection that is amplified. And on my amp the
volume control is an honest control. It doesn't go full on in the first
few fractions of an inch, it's very gradual all the way up. And this amp
with its completely flat frequency response has the volume control at the same position whether I'm playing solos, or with a quartet, or playing in front of a Stage Band, or a Concert Band - or even a full symphony orchestra. I never change the position. My own amp was made up for me by a man in Denver but it's not hard to make an amp like that. Music Man make
very fine amps. They are coming out with a compact amp and it's going to
have a more flat response.
Moonlight in Vermont
This was when I was working at NBC. I had a little quintet Stan Getz was
featured with the group some of the time and we were featured on this show each week. Sanford Gold who was a friend of mine at NBC took an air check of some of our music along to Teddy Reig who owned Roost Records. This man liked it and wanted to put out a 78. So we did Taboo, which we thought would be the one to go because it had lots of rhythm and, you know, was flashy. On the other side we did Moonlight in Vermont, and I was amazed that this tune became so popular. I guess it was because the DJs liked it.
Harmonically it's very simple vertical voicing. If I were to write this
out for a sax section it would be just like I would play it on the guitar.
This is how I think of the instrument - in terms of orchestrating. But of course, on the guitar it can be difficult because it involves a reach. The hardest thing to do on the guitar is to play a chord melody and play it legato, because there's always that spacing while you're changing chords.
I learned the technique from observing a Hammond organ player - this was
before they had reverb or anything. They had to develop a technique where, when they were changing chords they would hold one note down to keep a
tone going, like a pivot while moving the other parts. Well, by voicing
these chords and using the melody on the same string you can connect these chords and make it sound legato. That's why I did that way and I chose a
key where I could keep most of the melody on the same string to give me a common fingering.