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1893: A Jazz Lion Is Born, Will See Beauty in Slaughter

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Willie Smith playing piano in his apartment, Manhattan, New York, signature cigar in mouth.
Willie Smith playing piano in his apartment, Manhattan, New York, signature cigar in mouth.Credit: William P. Gottlieb, Wikimedia Commons

November 25, 1893, is the likely birthdate of the jazz pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, one of the pioneers of the “stride” style of piano playing. Smith's contribution to the genre is no less significant, even if less well-known, than James P. Johnson or Fats Waller.

The Lion, as he was almost universally known and as he referred to himself in the third person, had a large personality and a larger imagination, and his accounts of his own biography varied significantly from one telling to another. It was his consistent claim, however, that his father was Jewish, and that it had been his own ambition to become a rabbi. Late in life, he did act as a cantor at a black congregation in Harlem.

The squeals of the pig

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith was born in Goshen, New York, north of New York City, the son of Frank Bertholoff and Ida Oliver. According to his own 1964 memoir, “Music on My Mind,” co-written with George Hoefer, which is the source for much of what is known about him, Ida, a domestic worker, possessed “Spanish, Negro and Mohawk Indian blood,” whereas Frank was a white man and a Jew.

He was also a gambler and a playboy, which is why Ida is said to have thrown him out of the house when Willie was 2.

In 1901, Ida married John Smith, and the family moved to Newark, New Jersey. There John Smith worked nights in a pig slaughterhouse. Often Willie accompanied him, if only to make sure his father got home safely after his post-shift drinking was done.

Smith later recalled how some 400 pigs were killed each night, which was “a sickening sight to watch. But the cries from the pigs brought forth an emotional excitement. The squeaks, the squeals, the dipping them in hot water, they put them on a hook, take off the head, the legs, going down an aisle—I hear it on an oboe. That's what you hear in a symphony: destruction, war, peace, beauty, all mixed.”

When he was 6, he discovered an old pump organ in the basement, and began taking instruction from his mother. Soon, he was working in a shoe store, aiming to collect enough money to buy himself a piano.

That task was simplified when he was 12, and won a contest held by a local music store. The prize was an upright piano.

Lion of Judea?

Willie The Lion Smith 1964 Berlin -1+2: Echoes of Spring / Tea For TwoCredit: YouTube

From a young age, Smith spent his time hanging out in music clubs, where he was exposed to the new ragtime style of piano playing. Before he had reached the age of 20, he was performing in both New York and in Atlantic City, before heading off to France in November 1917 with the U.S. 350th Field Artillery. By then, he had already married Blanche Howard Merrill, a white woman. They soon separated, but apparently never divorced.

Jazz journalist Bill Gottlieb wrote that every time he asked Smith where he got his nickname, he got a different explanation, including this one: “Because of my devotion to Judaism, I was called ‘the Lion of Judea,’ later abbreviated to ‘The Lion.’”

Gottlieb testifies that Smith was religiously observant, and that he didn’t, for example, answer the phone on Yom Kippur. At the same time, he said he was a believer in astrology.

Despite his talent and his poise – the dapper “Lion” was never seen without a bowler hat on his head and a cigar in his mouth, the latter a habit he claimed he picked up at age 12 –Smith never had the financial success of some of his peers, probably because he didn’t make many recordings. What he did have was the respect of his fellow musicians, and he influenced the careers of many younger jazz artists, including Duke Ellington.

According to David A. Jasen and Gene Jones, authors of a book about early jazz masters, Smith’s “nearly forty works for piano constitute the most harmonically sophisticated body of popular piano music by an American composer. His pieces are hybrids, as evocative of Debussy as of 133rd St.”

Willie Smith died on April 18, 1973, at age 79.