Derek Smith obituary
Jazz pianist and member of the Tonight Show’s resident band in New York
By Peter Vacher
Derek Smith toured with Benny Goodman and played on cruises and at festivals
If George Shearing was the first British jazz pianist to gain enduring fame in the US, the music’s homeland, it was Derek Smith, who has died aged 85, who arguably achieved the greater all-round success there. Already recognised as an accomplished jazz player in London, having worked with John Dankworth and Kenny Baker, Smith took the plunge in 1957 and soon gained acceptance in New York as an exciting piano soloist while becoming a versatile if largely unseen figure in the non-stop worlds of jingles, pop albums, soundtracks and live TV shows.
Although he returned home occasionally to visit and play, there was never any question of him abandoning his adopted country, for he remained in demand there right to the end.
Smith was born in Stratford, east London, the second son of Sidney, an Inland Revenue employee, and his wife, Lillian. It was his mother who saw to it that he took piano lessons. Having studied the classical repertoire from the age of seven, he was introduced to jazz by hearing an Art Tatum recording. He recalled receiving his first pay packet at the age of 14 when he played for a neighbourhood VE Day party. Committed to a modernist jazz approach, Smith was a devotee of Oscar Peterson. He took a safe job in insurance while playing at night with the saxophonist Kenny Graham’s Afro-Cubists at the Flamingo in Soho, winning a Melody Maker contest and making well considered recordings with other modernists.
After national service in the Royal Air Force (1949-51), he resumed his day/night employment pattern before turning fully professional with the John Dankworth orchestra in 1954, leaving a year later to form the New Jazz Group, with the drummer Allan Ganley, which recorded for the Nixa label. In 1956, he obtained what he called “the best gig for a jazz musician” with Kenny Baker’s Dozen, a truly all-star outfit whose series, Let’s Settle for Music, on the BBC Light Programme, became hugely popular. Despite this recognition, in April 1957 Smith and his new wife, Shirley – they met in a jazz club – emigrated, using the trans-Atlantic voyage as their honeymoon.
Forced to sit out six months before being able to join the New York musicians’ union, Smith found work playing piano in the sheet music section of the department store Macy’s. In a chance encounter at a concert, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet befriended him and booked him to make a trio recording with the bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay, issued as Jazz Piano International. Thus launched, he was called to accompany the singer Mel Tormé even before he’d joined the union. He later formed the British Jazz Trio with fellow expatriates, the bassist John Drew and drummer Kenny Harris, recording in 1961.
That same year the drummer Mousey Alexander got him a place with Benny Goodman’s orchestra, just as it was due to tour South America. Smith was to work with Goodman a number of times, not always harmoniously.
In 1962, Smith met up with the trumpeter Doc Severinsen on a European tour, and when Severinsen landed the plum job of resident bandleader on NBC’s Tonight Show in 1967, he immediately recruited Smith for “the best job in New York”. There followed a heady five-year period where the pianist played on the show for a dazzling array of performers, including Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and the opera star Marilyn Horne. Responding once to a daunting 5am call to accompany Luciano Pavarotti on NBC’s Good Morning America show, Smith had little idea what the great man intended to sing, perhaps a major aria, only to find it was We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
When Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show moved to California in 1972, Smith stayed put, loath to forego his studio connections, and joined Dick Cavett’s TV show orchestra. He once recalled his initial surprise that the greatest jazz musicians could well be lined up to play dog-food jingles, but it was the compatibility evident in these encounters that led him to form a new trio with alternating bassists Milt Hinton and George Duvivier, the latter describing Smith’s keyboard style as “instant ignition”. The writer Nat Hentoff saw his playing as having “strength and definiteness of attack, vigorous pulsation and organic logic”. Smith went on to record more than a dozen trio albums.
Once his studio work subsided in the 1990s, Smith started to travel widely, playing jazz cruises and overseas festivals, always appearing with top mainstream players. He was a popular participant at the burgeoning number of hotel-based jazz parties, including Blackpool in 2004, also lecturing at colleges and recording all-star sessions, often for the Arbors label, including Dick & Derek at the Movies, a 1998 duo album with his fellow pianist Dick Hyman.
Smith is survived by Shirley, and by their daughters, Helen and Valerie, his brother, Douglas, and four grandchildren.
• Derek Geoffrey Smith, jazz pianist, born 17 August 1931; died 19 August 2016