Russell Smith

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The name Russell Smith abounding throughout music history like wildflowers on an Appalachian highway, it is no great shock to find several performers with this name whose accomplishments in classic jazz…
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The name Russell Smith abounding throughout music history like wildflowers on an Appalachian highway, it is no great shock to find several performers with this name whose accomplishments in classic jazz are the stuff of legend. Not to be confused with a journeyman trumpeter whose discography could possibly be large enough to form a wall around a typical Midwestern city, an even earlier Russell Smith is noted for having started one of the first black orchestras in Indianapolis, recorded documentation of which appears to be scarce, possibly non-existent.

The Russell Smith Orchestra, whose leader held forth as both a vocalist and pianist, had already established a residency at the Severin Hotel in Indianapolis as far back as 1911. Sidemen in this outfit included at least three major figures in classic jazz: Reginald DuValle, Eubie Blake, and Noble Sissle. The latter two performers eventually made names for themselves as leaders as well as the creators of road shows such as "Shuffle Along" and "Chocolate Dandies"; their old boss Smith played piano in the touring companies of both revues.

In the mid-'30s Smith came off the road and spent the balance of his life in Indianapolis, playing music mostly on a part-time basis while toiling day jobs including that of janitor in a bookstore. He remained a presence on the Indianapolis jazz scene throughout the '40s and '50s, leading small combos at local clubs. Some writers have indicated a much earlier death for this artist, 1953 rather than 1969. Smith composed ragtime material of his own in his younger days. Among his original pieces are the regal "Princess Rag" and the hellish "That Demon Rag."