Willie "The Lion" Smith

Willie the Lion [Video/DVD]

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The colorful Harlem stride pianist Willie "the Lion" Smith, with a derby hat atop his head and the inevitable cigar in his mouth, thought of himself as a "composer who played piano." This talented performer readily dismissed contemporaries such as Jelly Roll Morton as "one-handed pianists," yet never hesitated to serve as a mentor to an aspiring talent. Smith's accomplishments were obscured because his recording career was somewhat erratic and his difficult-to-play compositions made it hard for music publishers to sell his work. Unlike the often ponderous Ken Burns Jazz, this well-crafted portrait mixes excerpts of a number of Smith's recordings (including his oral memoirs from several of his LPs), rare film and video footage, infrequently published photos, and interviewees who talk about his music in depth. Starting off with a memorable quote by Ellington ("The Lion was a myth that you actually saw come alive"), the pianist's life is explored chronologically, interweaving his story with expert commentary from Dick Hyman (who also plays several excerpts to illustrate his thoughts), Mike Lipskin and Brooks Kerr (two of Smith's students), Artie Shaw (who as a teenager first met the Lion), and the superb jazz educator and pianist Dr. Billy Taylor (one of many young pianists who was "cut" at the piano by Smith). Rare clips of Smith's performances include a guest appearance with Ellington on the David Frost Show (adding an excerpt of a three-piano version of "Perdido" with Billy Taylor joining them) and Smith and Ellington sharing a piano at Ellington's 1969 White House birthday party. There is no extraneous footage to distract one from the subject; the only disappointment is that not one piece is ever heard in its entirety. But documentaries are rarely made as well as this finely honed tribute to a musical legend.