b. 28 June 1902, Ripley, Ohio, USA, d. 2 December 1937. With his father, six brothers and a cousin all playing trumpet, it is hardly surprising that Smith also played the instrument. By his late teens, Smith was playing in New York, where he became a big attraction as musical director and featured soloist with a Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake show. He also established a reputation as a sensitive accompanist to singers, playing and recording with Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ethel Waters. He was hired by Fletcher Henderson in 1925, staying for three years, and later rejoining the band for occasional club and recording dates (during this period, his brother, Russell Smith, was Henderson’s lead trumpeter). In the late 20s and early 30s, he was also frequently in and out of McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. He was one of the first trumpeters to intelligently explore the possibilities of mutes other than to create barnyard effects. Despite a reputation for leading a wild lifestyle, Smith’s playing was always tasteful and often deeply moving. Preferring to remain in the middle register, he rarely used the spectacular high notes with which his contemporaries pleased their audiences. In his introspective approach to his solos, and his habitually relaxed and unhurried accompaniments to singers, he prefigured the manner in which trumpet players of a later generation would utilize the instrument. In 1930, while touring with the Cotton Pickers, he was driving a car that was involved in an accident. A passenger in the car, his only close friend, George ‘Fathead’ Thomas, was killed. Subsequently, Smith’s mental state deteriorated and in 1933 he was confined to an institution, where he died in December 1937.
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