Hentoff on Jazz: The Jewish Soul of Willie “The Lion” Smith

In the morning, the first thing I see in my office is Willie “The Lion” Smith at the piano, wearing his derby, with a cigar jutting challengingly from his mouth. Soon after I became part of the New York jazz scene in the early 1950s, one of my great pleasures was to pick up the phone at home and find “The Lion” calling just to chat. That other grandmaster of stride piano, James P. Johnson, once said, “When Willie Smith moved into a place, his every move was a picture.” So were his stories on piano, his compositions, and on the phone.

In March of 1958 the head of Contemporary Records, Les Koenig, asked if there was anyone I wanted to record for his label. I quickly made my way to Nola Studios on West 57th Street, where Mat Domber of Arbors Records now does a lot of his recordings, with Willie and the equally formidable – and, like Willie, endlessly melodic – pianist Luckey Roberts. The resulting album, “Luckey and the Lion: Harlem Piano,” has been reissued on CD by the Concord Music Group.

“He was a myth you saw come alive,” Duke Ellington said of Willie, whom he considered his main mentor. But I thought I knew a lot about the man until Michael “Spike” Wilner – a jazz pianist, scholar of stride piano, and the owner and manager of the now-legendary Smalls Jazz Club on West 10th Street in Manhattan, sent me his book of revelations: “Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith / 8 Piano Compositions / Transcriptions and Essay by Michael ‘Spike’ Wilner.”

Most startling to me was something about which I had a clue in the 1950s, but stupidly never followed up on. Willie and I had the same internist, and among the displays on this doctor’s wall was Willie’s business card, written in English and Hebrew. I figured this was Wilie’s antic wit at play – perhaps a nod to the Jewish managers, bookers and record executives in the jazz business. Was I wrong!

Willie’s mother, Spike Wilner writes, was a laundress, and her son delivered the clean clothes to her customers, including “a prosperous Jewish family that treated Smith as one fo their own,” much like the Jewish family in New Orleans that bought a young Louis Armstrong his first horn. Every Saturday, when a rabbi came to the family’s home to teach Hebrew classes, Willie was welcomed to join in.

What fascinated Young Willie, Wilner writes, was “the chanting of the rabbi.” Reading this, I was a boy again in an Orthodox synagogue in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, in mandatory attendance during the High Holidays. My guess is that the chanting rabbi Willie heard was also a cantor, or chazzan, who sang, often with improvisations, the Jewish prayers.

As I wrote in my memoir “Boston Boy,” published by Knopf and Paul Dry Books, the chazzan’s voice penetrated so deeply into my very being that I almost shouted aloud, as I did on a Boston street when I first heard jazz. I didn’t shout in the shul so not to embarrass my father. But it was this same chrechts – the soul cry of human promise, transcendence and vulnerability – which I later found in the blues, Billie Holiday, Charles, Mingus and John Coltrane, just to name a few of the jazz chazzans I have known.

The rabbi who reached Willie as I had been reached, Spike Wilner continues, “took special pains to teach him alone.” At 13 – and I had to stop reading to fully grasp this – Willie Smith “had his bar mitzvah in a Newark synagogue.”

Wilner quotes the Lion himself: “A lot of people are unable to understand my wanting to be Jewish. One said to me, ‘ Lion, you stepped up to the plate with one strike against you – and now you take a second one right down the middle! They can’t seem to realize I have a Jewish soul and belong to that faith.” (Editor’s note: In his 1965 autobiography, Music On My Mind, Smith also states that his birth father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish.)

This Lion of Judah actually later became a cantor, or chazzan, himself at a Harlem synagogue of Black Jews!

What I would have given to have heard him there! Although I’ve been a Jewish atheist since I was twelve, I would have become a member of that congregation. Had there been any objections, I’m certain Rabbi Smith, with the vibrant life force of his stride piano, would have told the objectors to learn the interconnectedness of us all – from music.

He knew – as he once said – “Music doesn’t stem from any single race, creed, or locality, it comes from a mixture of all these things. As does The Lion.”

Spike Wilner includes, in his book, Duke Ellington’s recollection of the first time he heard The Lion play piano: “Actually everything and everybody seemed to be doing whatever they were doing in the tempo The Lion’s group was laying down. The walls and furniture seemed to lean understandingly – one of the strangest and greatest sensations I ever had. The waiters served in that tempo; everybody who had to walk in, out or around the place walked with a beat.”

In my youth, a Yiddish soul brother was called a “landsman.” I always thought of Willie as a soul brother. If I’d listened intentently enough, I would have caught in his often jubilant stride rhythms an ageless touch of Jewish klezmer swinging.

Why was he called The Lion? During World War One, Willie served in an all-black batallion, the 350th Field Artillery. One time, while fighting in the trenches for 49 days without a break, he volunteered to man the “Glorious 75” – the big, ungainly and deadly French 75-millimeter cannon, which was decisive in the Allied victories at the Marne and Verdun. Having been cited for bravery, Willie was called “The Lion” by his colonel.

Back in the States, The Lion wore a derby “because the rabbis did.” Underneath, on the Holy Days, was his yarmulke. In my anti-Semitic Boston boyhood, wearing a yarmulke could have gotten you bashed in the teeth as “a Christ-killer.” But Lord help anyone who would have tried to mess with The Lion.

This blog entry posted by Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff, a regular contributor to this column, not only writes about the legendary figures of jazz, he also knew most of them on a first name basis. Here he turns his attention to a pianist born as William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith. But for those who worked the 88 keys for a living, he was simply “The Lion.” T.G.

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