Local jazz legend Louis Smith remembered for deep love of music
By Martin Slagter | email@example.com
ANN ARBOR, MI – Whether it was playing with jazz giants like Cannonball Adderly and Horace Silver, Motown artists like The Temptations and Marvin Gaye or instructing children at Ann Arbor Public Schools, Louis Smith was always surrounded by music.
That is ultimately how Smith — who recorded with Blue Note Records — will be remembered, WEMU Music Director Linda Yohn said.
Smith, who died on Aug. 20, leaves behind a legacy embedded in performing, teaching and appreciating music, Yohn said.
"He never practiced false modesty – he was proud of his accomplishments but he didn't brag about them," said Yohn, who has been at WEMU for 29 years. "He would also always share with you what he was working on and how he was learning and growing. He was an example of how we all should live."
Smith was born May 20, 1931, in Memphis, to Walter Smith and Betty Little-Smith. Although his father was an ice delivery man, he instilled a love of music in Louis at a young age, purchasing an old used trumpet and he would practice playing his every day after school.
His father would take him to the famous Beale Street for nightly jam sessions where Louis would spend a great deal of time watching, listening and sitting in with the great jazz and blues musicians of the time.
Music would remain at the center of Smith's life after graduating from Manassas High School in 1948, where he was a member of the Manassas High School Rhythm Bombers.
He went on to attend Tennessee State University, where he was a member of the Tennessee State Collegians, and performed at Carnegie Hall with Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstein and Sarah Vaughn. Smith graduated from Tennessee State with a Bachelor of Science in Music and was drafted into the United States Army where he played in the Special Services Band.
In 1955, following his tour of duty, Smith decided to pursue a more stable career as an educator in Atlanta. Since then he went on to teach music as a band director at Tennessee State University, Kentucky State University and the University of Michigan, where he served as the Director of Jazz Bands from 1971 to 1987.
Smith also served as a music teacher, and band instructor with Ann Arbor Public Schools from 1968 to 1993.
Yohn said it was difficult to separate Smith's life as a musician from his life as an educator, because the two almost always went hand in hand.
"I think it's really hard, as his career rolled on, to separate the teacher from the performer and recording artist," she said. "I recall hearing Louis in concert and you would be so entertained, but you would also learn something because he had a really comfortable way of sharing information about his music. Whether it was about the song structure, a story about a song's composer or something from his life that inspired a song, you ended up learning something even if you didn't intend to."
He signed his first recording contract with titan jazz label Blue Note Records in 1957, releasing "Here Comes Louis Smith," which featured Adderley. Shortly after the release of his second album, "Smithville," he joined the Horace Silver Quintet, in 1958.
Smith's daughter Edwaa Smith was born Aug. 2, 1962. In 1968, while teaching music and band at Forsythe Junior High School in Ann Arbor, he met teaching colleague, Harriet L. Halpern, aka Lulu. The couple eventually married in 1976.
Smith performed as a staff musician with Motown Records, traveled and recorded with greats such as the Temptations and Marvin Gaye and Ashford and Simpson. He was featured on the classic R&B recordings like "Papa was a Rolling Stone," and "What's Going On."
In 1978, Louis signed his next recording contract with Steeplechase Records, where he released a total of 12 albums. He performed at the Montreux (Switzerland) and Nice (France) jazz festivals and the International Detroit Jazz Festival for 25 consecutive years. He is a former president of the Michigan Chapter of the International Association Jazz Educators and was in charge of adjudications for the Montreux-Detroit Jazz Festival.
Smith performed in live concerts at numerous venues including Carnegie Hall and the Birdland, as well as the Newport Jazz Festival, Grande Parade du Jazz, St. Petersburg, Moscow and the Netherlands. In 2005 while vacationing in Hilton Head, Virginia, Louis suffered a massive stroke leaving him partially paralyzed and aphasic. The stroke forced his career as a musician and educator to come to an end.
Ultimately, Yohn said, he'll be remembered as a man who passed on a love of music to everyone he encountered in one way or another.
"Honesty, integrity, truth, strength and responsibility are some of the things that I recall hearing from everybody who studied with Louis Smith," Yohn said. "He is just so important, not only for his musicianship, but in making sure he gave life lessons to those who studied with him."
Smith is survived by his wife Harriet L. Smith (Lulu); daughter, Edwaa Smith; son, Michael D. Collins, Sr.; grandson, Maurice Cumberbatch; grandson, Michael D. Collins, Jr.; granddaughter, Tiffany Collins; and great-granddaughters, Louise "Lulu" Collins and Alexia Cumberbatch.
Smith's family will receive friends from 4 to 8 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016, at the Nie Family Funeral Home, 2400 Carpenter Road, Ann Arbor, MI. A funeral service will take place at 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 30, at the funeral home, with visitation one hour prior.