Jazz Guitarist Johnny Smith Interview
As I entered into the second year of my doctoral studies at the University of Illinois, it came time to choose a topic for my dissertation.
After brainstorming, deciding, reconsidering, and starting from scratch many times on a topic of research, I had a long and important conversation with my friend Marc.
During that conversation he asked me, who is a player that has all of the skills and plays the guitar in a way that I admire, but where there hasn’t been a lot of research done on their output.
The answer to that question was Johnny Smith.
Having chosen Johnny’s playing for the topic of my dissertation, there were two main areas of the research that I had to conduct in order to get the information I needed for the paper – transcribing and analyzing his playing, and interviewing Johnny in person.
The first part was relatively easy, it just took time to write out the solos and break them down for the main text of the dissertation, but trying to get a Johnny Smith interview was a bit tougher to put together.
I quickly realized that Johnny didn’t have a website, and there were no obvious ways online to track him down, no phone number or address listed, and so I had to do a bit of detective work in order to contact him for the interview.
I found a magazine that had done and interview with Johnny a few years back, and I emailed the editor to see if he had any contact information for Johnny. He said he did, but wanted to check with Johnny before handing it over to me.
After a few weeks I got an email back with an address, and the instructions that I was to send Johnny a letter explaining what I was writing about and ask him for an interview.
So, I carefully crafted the letter, sent it off, and hoped I would get a response. A few days later my phone rings, it was Johnny calling to set up the interview.
We picked a date that worked for us both, and I planned my trip, along with my good friend Marc, to visit Johnny in Colorado Springs, where he’s lived since the late 1950s.
The interview took place on the morning of September 4th, 2007, in the lobby of the hotel we were staying at in Colorado Springs, and it has become one of the highlights of my musical career.
I didn’t know what to expect from Johnny. If he would be interested in the interview, or just humoring me, or how he would treat it. But Johnny couldn’t have been nicer, more kind, or more giving with his time that morning. An all around class act of a man.
As we sat nervously in the lobby waiting for Johnny, hoping he would show up but not knowing if he would, a large truck pulled into the lot and out stepped an older gentleman, dressed in a cowboy hat complete with bolo tie, it was Johnny Smith.
The conversation below took about an hour to record, and the time flew by. There were moments when Johnny didn’t want to talk about certain subjects, but was nice about it, and others where his face lit up as he spoke about past events in his life. It was a fun, engaging, and memorable experience.
I haven’t published this interview up until now, and I’m not sure why, but I think it’s time to share this conversation, with one of my musical heroes and a guitar legend, with others.
I hope you enjoy it. I was new to interviewing people, especially people I admired as much as Johnny, so besides editing out a few “ums” and “ahs” the entire conversation is there, warts and all, to enjoy.
If you are interested in learning more about Johnny and his music, check out my article “Jazz Guitar Legends – Johnny Smith.”
Johnny Smith Interview
Matthew Warnock: When you were first learning guitar you were listening to a lot of big bands. I am wondering how much this affected your chord voicings, as they are so unique compared to other guitarists.
Johnny Smith: I am sure they were an influence, but I was listening to a lot of different styles of music at the time so it’s hard to tell where everything came from. And I don’t know if I agree with your choice of topic, me, I’m sure you could have found someone more interesting to study. [Smiling]
Matt: Oh, I don’t know about that.
Matt: Well, where do you see yourself fitting into the overall scope of music? As a guitarist, a jazz musician, an arranger?
Johnny: I’m not a jazz player.
Johnny: No. I admire jazz players that stick to that you know, but I was involved with all different kinds of music, so I can’t consider myself a jazz player.
Matt: So you never focused on just studying jazz, you focused on studying music in general.
Matt: Can you talk a little bit about your experiences as an arranger at NBC? How that affected you as a musician, did you find it difficult at first or did it come easy to you?
Johnny: Well, when I first got to New York City in 1946, I had to put a residency in for six months before I could work. So NBC worked it out where I could do one arrangement a week for various things and that got me by until I got my Union Card.
Johnny: It was like a freelance deal you know?
Matt: Yeah. When you were first hired on as the staff arranger, you didn’t have a lot of classical training compared to others who were doing jobs like that. Did you find it hard to step into that position?
Johnny: Well, when I was in the Air Corps during the war they wouldn’t let me fly so they put me in the band. And that’s actually where I learned to read music, on the cornet. So that really saved me when I got to New York, and I did some arranging in the service, you know. That’s where I got my training.
Matt: What did you like more, being an arranger or a performer? Did you have a preference?
Johnny: Oh yeah, I’m allergic to pencils so…but the arrangements got me by, like I say, until I got my union card.
Matt: OK, so it was more of a means to an end so you could….
Johnny: Right, get out and perform.
Matt: Can you talk a little about your early performing experience in New York? Who you were playing with, how you got on the scene, that sort of thing.
Johnny: Well, at NBC I did so many shows a week, and they were all different things. Backing up singers and people like Eddie Albert, Bob and Ray, and the NBC symphony, everything. I kind of look back at the experience I had, I was working at Birdland until four o’clock in the morning. And on one occasion I finished four o’clock in the morning, and at nine o’clock I was in the middle of the New York Philharmonic. Talk about a transition.
Matt: So you were playing all sorts of styles of music at this time.
Johnny: Oh yes.
Matt: Did you find that it helped you find work, the fact that you could play different styles?
Johnny: Yes. And at that time there were only a couple of guitar players in New York that could read music. Tony Mottolla, and myself, so anything that involved reading I usually got a call for.
Matt: When you went out and formed your jazz groups that you performed with, what did you look for in deciding on who was going to be in your band?
Johnny: With the quintet I didn’t have to look too far because I had helped Stan Getz get on the staff at NBC. Because he wanted to get off the road, so he was there, that was it.
Matt: So you hired the people who were around you at the time?
Johnny: Well they were all NBC people, Sanford Gold, Don Lamond, Eddie Safranski.
Matt: When you were learning how to improvise did you listen to musicians who weren’t guitar players? Say Charlie Parker or Bud Powell, or did you focus more on guitarists?
Johnny: People ask me who, you know, did I have a teacher or what. And I say no, actually music was my teacher, all different kinds of music. So maybe that’s what influenced my jazz playing, if I can call it that.
Matt: I’d call it that but…what musicians or composers were you listening to when you were in New Work? Who did you like?
Johnny: Well, when I got to New York, 52nd street was in full blossom, you know. Door to door to door, Lester Young, Art Tatum and all the great jazz players. You went into the place, there was no cover charge, and it was so crowded you couldn’t get to the bar, which was just as well cause I didn’t have any money for booze anyway.
Matt: Do you have any favorite classical composers or musicians that you like to listen to?
Johnny: You mean as far as guitarists?
Matt: Oh no, it could be anybody, Mozart, Schoenberg or….
Johnny: Well, Schoenberg and all, like Tchaikovsky, Alban Berg, and as far as musicians, Horowitz was one of my favorites.
Matt: How about on classical guitar, did you have any favorites?
Johnny: Oh yeah, Segovia. He was the, in the early days he was about the only classical guitarist of note. I still respect him as being really the forerunner of classical guitar. Then came Julian Bream and all these different guys.
Matt: Did you ever get a chance to hear Segovia perform?
Johnny: Oh yeah, I sure did. When I was with Bing (Crosby) in London on one occasion. He was staying at the same hotel, and this hotel was, they kind of catered to big names, you know. And hell, he’d walk around the lobby and nobody’d bother him. But I got him to autograph his book for me.
Matt: Can you talk about your time with Bing Crosby? You were playing with him, but weren’t you also writing some of the arrangements as well?
Johnny: Yeah, I did some. He, well I travelled with him the last two years of his life. And everywhere we went it was royalty, you know. Especially in Europe, they worshipped Bing. And as a matter of fact, the last tour we were in Brighton, England, down on the South Coast. And we finished this on a Monday night, and we all went our separate ways, and that following Thursday is when he dropped dead on the golf course.
Johnny: Well, Hank Jones, Don Lamond, Eddie Safranski, and a drummer that I worked with in Denver; he’s one of my favorites, Daryl Goes. He saved my neck when I first got out here in 1958 and I started playing in Denver.
Matt: Were you able to perform a lot when you moved out here, was that something you were looking to do, continue performing regularly?
Johnny: I had to. Yeah, I played a lot up in Denver. As a matter of fact, I was at this one club called Shaners for about seven years. Then I would go back to New York, record, play in Birdland, and record there.
Matt: Did you like living in New York?
Johnny: Hell no! The greatest site I ever saw was looking at the skyline of Manhattan in my rear view mirror when I left New York. No, I didn’t like living there; it’s totally opposite from my lifestyle. Of course, I was very fortunate being there during the years that I was because that was the very apex of jazz music.
Matt: I read in an interview that you had barely heard of Colorado Springs before you moved here. What were your first impressions when you moved out here?
Johnny: Well, I had family here. Two brothers and my mother were living here. My wife died in New York, you know, I had a little five year old daughter. I was working day and night, there was no way I could take care of her. So out of the tragedy at least it gave me a good excuse to leave New York.
Matt: You were ready to go when you left?
Johnny: Yes, because in 1957 things had started to crumble. The three networks that used to have over a hundred musicians on full time staff, and when I left, that had all gone. They were the predecessors of rock, you know, and I saw these great musicians coming in and honking on their horns, string players playing footballs, and so no, I was very fortunate to leave when I did.
Matt: When you came out here, how long was it until you opened your guitar store?
Johnny: My wife opened it in 1961.
Matt: How did you find it, being a business owner, after so many years as a performer?
Johnny: Well, I wasn’t’ much of a businessman, my wife helped me a lot. So it at least kept me off the streets.
Matt: So it was successful….
Johnny: Not at first. I started off with a consignment of a few guitars and amps from Gibson. That was part of my agreement for the Johnny Smith Guitar. They consigned me a few things and then I started paying it off and buying on my own. So it was several years before I could take money out of the store.
Matt: Did you also teach lessons out of the store?
Johnny: I had teachers for all different instruments. Then I had what I called the honor band, young guitar players. And I used to write out arrangements, I even had one arrangement of the Old Castle by Mussorgsky, so that was fun.
Matt: Can you talk a little bit about your teaching? I know you’ve had some great students over the years, Gene Bertoncini, Bill Frisell and others. Can you talk about your teaching philosophy, how you approach teaching?
Johnny: Well, Dick Elliot was with the NORAD band so I helped him, and Barry Swyde was there and I used to go to colleges and universities. I taught with the Stan Kenton clinics at different colleges. One of the people there was Tim May and he’s a very fine guitarist.
Matt: The book that you wrote, how did you come up with that book?
Johnny: That kind of came out of my seminars. I had a weeklong seminar here for several years, and I kind of compiled that and when it came time to do the book for Mel Bay. Being allergic to pencils, and loving to fish, I had a boat up at one of the high mountain lakes. So I got a bunch of manuscript paper and a card table and I went up, got on the boat, put the rods out, and that’s where I put it all together.
Matt: So you were catching fish, too….
Johnny: Oh yeah! Of course.
Matt: Excellent. When you came to Colorado Springs, were people aware of your experiences or did you live pretty much a quiet life?
Johnny: I wanted to have the quiet life, you know. But eventually people started to say, “Hey, he used to be…”
Matt: Well, you did accomplish a lot as a musician. Even just in your ten years in New York, you accomplished so much. How do you look back on that time of your life?
Johnny: I don’t know.
Matt: Ok, that’s fine. When you recorded the album of solo classical pieces including the Old Castle, Seville, what was your inspiration for that?
Johnny: Actually, I recorded this at home. The reason for recording it was just to demonstrate the possibilities to different people at colleges and my seminars and had no intention of having this put out. But Carl Jefferson who owned Concord Records, he had been after me to come out and record. I didn’t want to do that, I hate recording.
So I mentioned that I had this demo would he be interested, and so he was, and I went out to California and they put it out with some George Van Eps tunes. But I had no intention of releasing these as a record.
Matt: Can you talk a little bit about your picking, because you recorded those classical pieces with a pick? Could you talk about how you developed your picking technique over the years?
Johnny: I was influenced by other instruments and especially the piano. I figured that if this guy could go from the bottom to top and back, I figured I should be able to do that on the guitar. And being a nut, that’s what I did.
Matt: And the pick made it easier to get those sounds?
Johnny: Yeah. Controlled picking, I was influenced by the violin bow. And that’s the way it worked out.
Matt: Did you ever play with your fingers?
Johnny: I only did two tracks; one was with a singer, Beverly Kenny, who came to an unfortunate end. But I did an album with here and on one of the tracks I did a little fingerpicking thing. The only other thing I did was when I recorded the Ravel Pavanne.
Matt: And you used your fingers for that.
Johnny: Yeah, that was the only time. Well, I shouldn’t say only, the flutist Julius Baker, I did The Anthrop by Iber. I did that with a pick, but I put rubber bands on the strings of my Epiphone to make it sound like a classical guitar, but it didn’t at all.
Matt: Besides an archtop, did you play a flattop or classical guitar?
Johnny: Well, my first guitar was given to me by a man that I was teaching, and it was a Kalamazoo, a flattop Kalamazoo. I was travelling with this Hillbilly band up in Maine, and I got a Martin D-28 and that didn’t’ work at all so I traded that and got an L-5 and that was the guitar that I used.
Just before I went to New York, it was stolen out of the checkroom of this hotel where I was playing up in Portland, Maine. Years later they found it, I got a call from the police down in Texas. It still had the same strings, the same everything including the pick under the strings.
Matt: How long after was it?
Johnny: It was at least six years.
Matt: So what were some of the guitars that you played over the years? Did you play the Johnny Smith model or did you just design it or…?
Johnny: I did design it. Of course, when I first got to New York I didn’t have a guitar, and Gretsch, Harry Volpe, I met Harry and he took me to Gretsch and they built me a guitar. But that didn’t work and I used an Epiphone Emperor. I did this show with Mindy Carson, this singer, and we did the rehearsal. I had a locker at NBC, and I didn’t have a case, I just took the guitar and amplifier and get on the elevator and go up. We did the rehearsal and we had a ten-minute break before the broadcast, so we went down to Hurley’s and you know got a little courage and when I got back to the studio the guitar was gone.
Never saw it since, and John Collins a very dear friend of mine, had an old D’Angelico so he let me use that. It had like a plow handle for a neck, but I loved that guitar. When John built me one I wouldn’t give it back to John, I had D’Angelico build a guitar for John.
Then Gibson approached me about endorsing a guitar. I went to John D’Angelico, and I said I don’t feel right about endorsing another guitar. He says, “Please do. I can only build so many guitars a year, so please, if you can design a good instrument by all means do it.” So I did, and the president of Gibson came out here and we sat at my kitchen table and I told him what I wanted.
Matt: Were you happy with the guitar that Gibson built?
Johnny: Yes, well, no, I wasn’t happy with Gibson. That was the only guitar that they didn’t tool up for the neck. It was freehanded. So there were variations in the neck. It was so bad I wrote them once and I said, jeez, I could do better with a jackknife, you know. But the original JS they built with 22 frets, they built two of them, and I had the factory saw off the last two frets. So I played that. But I sent it back to the factory to get some touchups and they lost it. They built me another guitar, and that’s the one that I used.
Matt: What were some of the key design considerations that you wanted from the Gibson guitar?
Johnny: Number one, the neck didn’t have a space under the board, you know, I had them build the end of the fingerboard right into the top of the guitar to better the sustain. To get a better sustain, I had them use a cross brace, and I told them I wanted to customize the thickness, what the thickness of the top would be. Then the body was a little shallower than usual.
Matt: So did you really consider your tone when you were playing? A lot of players from that era sort of grabbed a guitar and played, but were you very conscious of your sound?
Johnny: I guess music is, you know, if you were in the shower and you wanted to sing Moonlight in Vermont, you wouldn’t go ha-ha-ha-ha-ha (opening phrase). So everything is sustained unless otherwise indicated.
Matt: And that was important to you, to get that sustain like on your opening to Moonlight in Vermont?
Johnny: That’s what I strived for, the evenness of balance. When you did a four-string chord, all the notes had to sustain the same, you know.
Matt: Did you practice a lot as a kid growing up?
Johnny: Oh yes, and it drove my parents crazy! In the middle of the night, I’d dream of a chord, so I’d get out of bed and sure enough there it would be.
Matt: When you think of your trademark style, like tone and sustain, what other things were you really conscious of?
Johnny: Well, chord voicings, nothing about me is original, it’s all basic music you know, the voicings. It’s just basic music. In other words, if I was playing a melody, I’d try to work out where it would be the most sustainable. I’d always think of myself in the shower note being ha-ha-ha-ha-ha (sings opening to Moonlight in Vermont).
Matt: Did you teach your kids music, was that a part of your family life?
Johnny: Oh no, I’m the only nut in the family.
Matt: Let’s talk a bit about some of the other things you enjoy besides music. You mentioned fishing, is that something you grew up doing, being outdoors…?
Johnny: You know, I admire people that are dedicated to one thing. I admire them, but I don’t envy them. I had other things like flying airplanes. Right after the war, I started flying again and got my instructor’s rating, was teaching flying, which carried on to single- and multi-engine for over forty years. You know, working that in to everything else I did. I ended up with a, what they call an ATP, and that’s an Airline Transport Pilot’s license.
That’s what all captains have, and fishing, I always loved fishing as a young kid. When I got out here, of course, wonderful fishing up in the mountains. In 1965, I always wanted to fish for big fish, and so I bought this sixteen-foot boat. It looked big on the trailer. So my wife and I went down to Mazatlan, let’s see if I have, oh yeah, there’s a picture (takes out a picture of him laying out a swordfish the size of his sixteen-foot boat).
Went to Mazatlan with this sixteen-foot boat, ended up thirty, thirty-five miles out in the Pacific Ocean fishing for big fish. There’s the sixteen-foot boat and a marlin. We fished there for six years or so every winter. Then I, some of the guys came to me and asked me if I would fly them down to Baja and of course I said yes, and that started 1971. Without missing a year this will be my 37th year in a row.
Matt: And you still fly down by yourself?
Johnny: No, they don’t have a strip anymore. Besides, it’s nice to sit back and have a Bloody Mary and let the guys in the front worry about the weather, you know. I’m getting ready to go. I go twice a year. It’s down at the tip of Baja; it’s the same place. So I’m getting ready to go next month.
Matt: And what do you fish for down there, swordfish…?
Johnny: Anything, but normally it’s usually for big Marlin, you know, and Sailfish, and Dorado, which is Mahi-Mahi, Wahoo, and then in shore fish for really a trophy fish, the Roosterfish. Very strong fish.
Matt: Do you fly fish around here, or just in the boat?
Johnny: I don’t get to fish much anymore, you know, my wife isn’t in the best of health.
Matt: I’m sorry to hear that.
Johnny: We used to go up to visit friends up in the lakes, but I don’t do that much anymore.
Matt: When you were flying, did you have a plane that was here, or what did you use?
Johnny: Oh yeah, well I had access to different planes which I instructed in. Like Cessna’s and other planes, Cessna 310, Hyper Seneca’s. Those were multi-engine, then I was part owner of a couple of Beach Craft Bonanzas V-35, and then I was the part owner of an A-36, that I did most of it, the other guys didn’t. I used that to go to different colleges, out on the West Coast.
Matt: Oh, so when you went to performances, you flew yourself?
Matt: Would you have been a pilot if you had had a choice? Like, as a career is that what you had wanted to be?
Johnny: If I had flown in the service and had I survived, some of my friends didn’t, had I survived, I would have made flying my career. I wouldn’t have been a guitar player.
Matt: When you look back over your life what are you really proud of?
Johnny: Being alive, I guess. Well, I’m kinda, with music, I’m never satisfied, and I can’t stand to listen to anything of mine. But I was pretty satisfied with flying, and I went right to the top.
With fishing, I’m satisfied because I got to catch my own big fish on my own little boat. I love, I love the outdoors, the wilderness. For many years, I used to go over to Gunderson, my friend had a ranch, 35,000 acres, and we would take horses up twenty-nine miles to this old cow camp, and we used to hunt for elk and deer.
Matt: So you hunted as well as fished, you were a hunter all of your life as well?
Matt: Did you hunt your whole life…?
Johnny: Oh, no, just when I got out here in 1958.
Matt: Did your father fish or hunt when you were a kid?
Johnny: Oh yeah, I grew up in Portland, Maine, and my dad used to take us out fishing, you know. Mostly from the bank.
Matt: When you look at the guitar, when you conceive the guitar do you conceive it this way (horizontally), or this way (vertically), or both?
Johnny: Well, like I say I was influenced by the piano that could go from one end of the keyboard to the other. So I thought I could do that. When I look at the guitar, I don’t look at it as a guitar as such; I look at it as a musical instrument.
Matt: What about guitarists now? Is there anyone you like to listen to?
Johnny: Oh, there’s some very fine young players, Howard Alden, Jack Wilkins, Jimmy Bruno.
Matt: As you kind of grew up musically with all these players, with all these types of music, was there any music you took the time to really study carefully?
Johnny: Well, when I was young, back before World War II, of course I worshiped Django, I’d save up my nickels and buy every record that came out, you know, 78’s. And I put these on my folks’ Grafonova, and I could get about five plays before the needle would wear through the record. But in five plays, I could copy the whole thing on my guitar.
Just before the war, I used to listen to Les Paul when he was with the Pennsylvanians at some kind of supper club. I forget the name of the program, but Les was featured with his trio with Jimmy Atkins, my very dear friend. As a matter of fact, I had lunch Wednesday with Gary Atkins, Jimmy Atkins’ son, Chet Atkins’ nephew, who comes down from Fort Collins once a month for lunch.
Matt: That’s great. How about some classical guys, did you ever study Bach…?
Johnny: Well, like I say, all different kinds of music, of course, Bach…
Matt: Did you ever learn how to play the piano?
Johnny: I played a little piano, but it’s just basic music you know. Like I say, voicings, sustain, phrasing
Matt: I appreciate you taking the time out of your day to talk to me. This is a real treat for me.
Johnny: It’s my pleasure.
Matt: You’ve been a big influence to a lot of people including myself, so thank you.
Johnny: Well, at least I’ve been able to show guitarists what not to do! I’m very honored.
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