Drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith says he’s no dancer; instead, the affable musician says he just tries to make people dance. It’s all a part of his philosophy, one that’s based on a life of jazz that was solidified when he got a union card to play on the bandstand at 13.
What would you play for someone who’s not that familiar with jazz?
You can start with the blues. You can’t go wrong with the blues. I think everybody has at least heard the blues in some form or another. So with the blues, I think you can bring them in. Hit with the blues and I don’t think you can do wrong.
I was born into music. The music was waiting on me, really. My dad was an aficionado and he had a bunch of records. He loved the music. I was born and raised in Waukegan, Illinois, north of Chicago. My dad would drive down into the city and go see some cats play. He would go see local Chicago players Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, of course, Dexter Gordon with Stanley Turrentine, and those touring – Art Blakey, Bird. My dad worked at the steel mills for thirty years. On the side, he played a little drums and he liked Philly Jo Jones, Blakey, Poppa Joe Jones.
So as a kid, maybe there was some musical osmosis going on there?
My dad told me the story that at six months old I would watch my dad practice, in a big rocking chair. I would crawl into the rocking chair – it was about eight feet from the drums – and I’d sit up and watch my dad practice until I nodded off. He’d go into the kitchen and get some water. I’d wake up and my dad said he’d hear me crawling to the bass drum and put pressure on the bass drum kettle.
When I was three years old, my godfather gave me a pair of sticks and a practice band. He gave me to a friend of his, a great drummer by the name of Charlie Williams. I was five when I started taking formal lessons with him. He left an indelible impression on me because I saw Charlie play in a lot of group contexts. He could play piano trio, quartet, quintet.
You speak the language of jazz; how does jazz speak to you?
This music is from the black experience. When you look at African history, it’s all about a communal aspect. It’s about a party. So even with Bird, Dizzy, Miles, even bebop, it was still a party. We made our audience a part of the event. When the music got cauterized with people sitting down, being polite, listening, and clapping politely, that was a disconnect from the musicians with the audience. We want to get back to the party vibe. I was talking to Delfeayo Marsalis and we were talking about that disconnect, and he brought up a good point that I actually agree with. He said, “You know, in the ‘50s and ‘60s you had the fun band, like Cannonball Adderley’s band, and with the live record ‘Live at the Troubador,’ you can feel the party. He was great because he accomplished the party vibe with high class musicians that played on a high level. Jazz musicians, we need to get back to that because it’s not about us on the bandstand, it’s about grabbing the audience by the hand and saying, ‘Come over here. We’re going to take this ride.’”
Have you ever seen a young musician and thought, “Yeah, I remember that?”
I see that in some students. I mean the thing that bothers me, concerns me, with the younger drummers that are coming up, is the lack of foundation. They really don’t understand the foundation of where the music comes from. Everybody starts from wherever they start, wherever their interest to the music is. I can’t knock that, but what I have a problem with is once they get into the music and start to play like a jazz musician, the lack of foundation and understanding the history of the music is a thing that’s very problematic with them. I mean there are people who gave their lives for this music. It’s a disrespect not to understand where the music comes from and the history of it. That’s a grave crime to me and that I have to get on to those cats about.
Is there any instrument besides the drums that you appreciate the most?
I appreciate the music, period. I appreciate the whole ensemble. That’s what got me into composition. I always want to find out how things work. I took my drums apart. My band wasn’t too happy with me about that, though [laugh]. But I did do it. I was trying to find out what makes a drum a drum, what makes a drum sound great. I was always into things, trying to find out what’s the inner workings of things. I wanted to know what makes a group sound great. That’s how I get into listening on different levels, really listening to the bass and drums, listening to the rhythm section as a whole.
Have you seen that with any drummer in particular whom you looked up to?
I remember the great Billy Higgins. He was very kind to me. I saw Billy play numerous times. When I moved out here to LA, I used to see him – and I’ve witnessed this a handful of times – I saw people in the clubs never having been to a jazz club, never having heard jazz music, I saw Billy Higgins groovin.’ He connected with the audience, the folks, and I can tell you by the end of the set, those same people who never heard jazz, never been to a jazz club, say, “This is a wild man. I’ve never heard anything like this in my life. I loved this; this was great. I love the drummer.” This really captured me. You let the audience see your spirit and they go on the joy ride with you.
By Deborah DeMoss Smith, host of “The Second Line,” Sun, 11am-1pm