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 which was years ahead of its time.
On this week’s Riverwalk Jazz, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band will revive some of their favorite Jabbo Smith compositions. And we’ll hear scenes from Jabbo’s life in his own words, as told by our special guest Vernel Bagneris.
Mr. Bagneris wrote, directed and performed in the international hit revue One Mo’ Time, and wrote a part for Jabbo Smith in the road company. Jabbo toured with the show for four years, from 1978 to 1982. Mr. Bagneris shares with us his personal insights into Jabbo’s life and personality gained from their time working together.
We’ll also hear Vernel sing 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.” This last tune and an instrumental version of “Must Be Right, Can’t Be Wrong” are presented here on Riverwalk Jazz for the first time anywhere.
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 into the Jenkins Orphanage Home in Charleston. His mother also found employment in the Home in order to be near to him.
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 the age of ten. He left the Jenkins home at the age of 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, the most important of which were Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Ten—an all-star line-up that included arranger Benny Carter on alto—and Duke Ellington, where he substituted for Bubber Miley in a 1927 Okeh recording of “Black and Tan Fantasy.” Jabbo turned down an offer to join the Ellington Orchestra in 1927 because he was offered only $65 per week.
In 1928 Jabbo joined the pit band of the Broadway show Keep Shufflin’, playing with Fats Waller on organ, James P. Johnson on piano, and Garvin Bushnell on alto. He recorded four sides with this group under the name of 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 and 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 the Brunswick Record Company of Chicago he formed his Rhythm Aces, a quintet with which he recorded nineteen sides from January to August 1929.
But as Jabbo once remarked, “These recordings for Brunswick didn’t go anywhere.” Since then, they’ve been reissued several times. And today they’re considered an important piece of jazz history. Jabbo Smith himself has never received the recognition he deserves—as a jazz trumpeter and as a highly original jazz composer.
Toward the end of the 1930s Jabbo gradually withdrew from serious music activity. He led a group for a while at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and gigged in a Newark, NJ club called the Alcazar.
Soon after, Jabbo moved to Milwaukee where he married, did some local playing and enjoyed the security of a steady job with the Avis car rental agency. There Jabbo Smith, one of the top four or five most influential trumpet players of Jazz, languished in quiet oblivion for twenty years.
Finally, around 1960, Jabbo was rediscovered. He led an active musical life after that point: recording, performing, and composing original music. It was the latter activity that he said gave him the most satisfaction and was for which he hoped he would be best remembered.
Jabbo died in January of 1991 at age 82.
Photo credit for Home Page and Recent Radio Broadcast Page: Jabbo Smith. Photo courtesy jazzhotbigstep.com
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2011