Willie “The Lion” Smith (1893-1973), widely considered one of the masters of stride piano playing (James P. Johnson of New Brunswick is another), grew up in Newark and got his start playing music there. (This style of music got its name from the way the player’s left hand glides up and down the keyboard.)
“Some people used to put me on by asking whether jazz was born in New Orleans and whether or not Jelly Roll (Morton) invented it,” Smith wrote in his “Music on My Mind: Memoirs of an American Pianist.” “I said once that was one of the worst things I ever heard. What I meant was that most of the jazz I knew was, in the beginning, from the brickyards. And another thing, jazz comes from the person’s soul and not from a state.”
Below, listen to Smith play the aptly named “Finger Buster.”
“He was a myth you saw come alive,” said Duke Ellington, who considered Smith one of his primary influences, and recorded two stride tributes to him (“Portrait of the Lion” and “Second Portrait of the Lion”). Smith responded with his own “Portrait of the Duke.”
New Jersey celebrated its 350th birthday in 2014. And in the 350 Jersey Songs series, we marked the occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, from September 2014 to September 2015 — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. To see the entire list, click here.