In the late 1940s and 1950s, few pianists moved as effortlessly and deftly between jazz and pop as pianist Paul Smith—who died June 29 at age 91. Instrumental pop, as a genre, came into its own after 1948, with the advent of the 10-inch LP. Pop back then still had plenty of swing but was really jazz-light—easy-going music that had a bit of kick but didn't venture too far off a familiar song's melody.
One could argue that many of the big bands during the swing era were playing an early form of pop. But pop as an official record-company department was only possible when record buyers could languish on a sofa and read while record sides played for 15 minutes or longer. Before 1948, listeners had to flip over 78-rpm discs every three minutes or so, and most music was geared for dancing, not lounging and listening.
Smith was perfectly suited for the jazz-pop LP era. Born in San Diego, Smith was greatly influenced by Nat King Cole's precise, swinging playing style. Smith began taking piano lessons early, served in the Army during World War II, and after the war remained on the West Coast, where opportunities for accomplished musicians were plentiful—in recording studios, on movie soundstages and on television. [Photo above of Paul Smith in the early '50s]
Throughout the '50s, Smith appeared on many key jazz-pop recordings—Benny Goodman with Strings (1951), June Christy's Midnight Sun (1953), Paul Weston's Mood for 12 (1955), Dave Pell's I Had the Craziest Dream (1955), Anita O'Day with Buddy Bregman's Orchestra (1955), Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book (1956) and many of her other songbook albums, Louis Armstrong with Russell Garcia's Orchestra (1957), Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald (1957), Ella in Berlin (1960) and many albums by Billy May, Buddy Bregman, Ray Anthony and Ella Fitzgerald.
Smith also recorded numerous albums leading a trio, quartet and other ensembles that weren't purely jazz but were hardly pop. There was always a skip in his step at the keyboard and a lush, dramatic sensibility on ballads. In a city awash in extraordinarily gifted pianists in the '50s, Smith excelled in Los Angeles studios, on TV and in clubs, winding up as the first choice of singers and bands alike.
Smith's magic was all about taste and how he was able to balance a song on the tips of his fingers while thrilling listeners. He wasn't supper club or lounge, just a player who loved having his way with a melody back when all great jazz and pop musicians were sublime entertainers.
JazzWax tracks: The best way to get started with Paul Smith is his Fine, Sweet and Tasty from 1953. You'll find it here. And if you can get your hands on Cascades (1955), it's easily one of Smith's finest recordings, featuring Abe Most (fl), Willie Schwartz (clar), Ronnie Lang (as), Paul Smith (p), Tony Rizzi (g), Sam Chieftz (b) and Irv Cottler (d). It looks like it was released in Japan here.
JazzWax note: One of my favorite Paul Smith clips is no longer up at YouTube. Back in September 1959, Smith appeared on The Big Crosby Show. At one point during the show, Smith, George Shearing, and Joe Bushkin sat three grand pianos accompanying Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby—each standing at a different piano—singing Irving Berlin's I Love A Piano. Smith is the first piano backing Sinatra. Man, I wish someone would put that one back up!