There is almost no published information about the life of Cricket (orCrickett?) Smith. Yet he is a fascinating historical figure whose careerspanned at least five decades of music, before jazz all the way to leadand solo trumpet in jazz and dance bands.
That is not the least of it. An expatriate, his career took him from hisplace of birth, Nashville, Tennessee in 1883, to Goa, in India, wherehe was instrumental in establishing the jazz played there today. Here’ssome of his story.
The earliest mention of Smith’s career occurs through W. C. Handy. TheAutobiography of W. C. Handy mentions that Smith played with Handy andtoured the South with him in Mahara’s Minstrels in 1903. Handy was themusical director of the concert and marching band and the orchestra forthat show. Handy relates some fairly stunning stories of the racism,cruelty and violence that the troupe encountered in Tyler, Texas andelsewhere along their route (the troupe was almost lynched in Tylersimply because the 20 year old Smith was diagnosed with smallpox, andHandy recounts how they fought back and escaped by railroad car).
Smith next turns up in 1907 as a member of the touring “Smart Set”musical review, whose musical director was James Reese Europe (A Life InRagtime, Reed Badger, 1995, Oxford U. Press-it lists his first initialsas G. W., and states he was “of Pittsburgh”, which may indicate he wasthere just before joining “Smart Set”).
At some point prior to 1917 Smith was with the famous touring vaudevilleteam, the Musical Spillers. When (William Newmeyer Spiller had alsoplayed sax and alto horn with Handy’s Mahara band, beginning in 1899,and quite possibly when Smith was with the troupe (see www.digilib.nypl.org, NY Public Library digital collection). The act wasessentially a band that played a variety of music, purportedly includingjazz/ragtime. It traveled internationally. The website relates thatthis act originated the phrase “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet” that waspicked up by Al Jolson.
And ten years after his Texas experience Smith turns up playing trumpeton the landmark James Reese Europe recordings for Victor (1913-1914)that produced ‘Too Much Mustard’, ‘Down Home Rag’, ‘Castle House Rag’,‘Castle Walk’, among others. ‘Down Home’ and other sides are almostcertainly jazz recordings by standards that grew into general usesometime in the early 1920s to identify jazz (the use of secondary rag,ex: ‘Down Home”; and the use of improvised obbligato parts over a steady4/4 beat* as in ‘Castle Walk”, for example), although the term was notin general use in 1913. In 1913, the popular term would have beenragtime, not to be confused with the formal structure of the classicrags of Joplin, et al. (These records bore the language that they wererecorded under the supervision of the renowned dance team of Irene andVernon Castle. However, there are strong indications from a variety ofsources that the reverse may have been more accurate. Europe and hismusicians even suggested tempos, music, and dance steps that the Castlesused. The Castles’ performances revolutionized middle class ballroomdancing.)
Europe was instrumental in organizing African-American musicians in NewYork City into various organizations; in succession, the New AmsterdamSociety, the Clef Club, and the Tempo Club. These musicians sewed up thesociety jobs in New York and Palm Springs, Florida, including functionsfor the “400”.
Jazz Away From Home quotes a1919 ad in which Smith is advertised asstarring with W. C. Handy’s band (he may have been in it when it playedDC that year). He also appears on the New York recordings of the FordDabney band from 1917 to about 1919 (relying on Rust’s discography).When Europe departed the New York musical scene to lead the 369th‘Hellfighters” band in Europe during WWI, the way was open for Dabney(also from DC and the composer of “Shine” — that’s a whole other story)to function as a primary leader and assume, or continue to play, the NewYork society engagements of the Clef Club members. (Dabney is pianiston the Europe recordings). This band also played for dancing and diningon the New Amsterdam Theater roof, and also for the Ziegfeld shows thatwere produced there, Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic. (They were not the mainZiegfeld Follies). You can get a good idea of how the instrumentalmusic for the Ziegfeld productions sounded through these records, whichare charming examples of the period. I get the impression from theseDabney performances and other period recordings of similar bands andperformances for musical theater productions, that they may form aseparate genre distinct from either the vaudeville jazz bands, forexample, or the concert bands and orchestras of the period.
Smith is said to have played in France as early as 1917 (Who’s Who InJazz). But it is beginning in 1919 that we find Smith as an expatriate,living and working abroad. He went to Paris in 1919 with drummer LouisMitchell’s band, and he is on the recordings made in Paris beginning in1922 by Louis Mitchell’s Jazz Kings. This is the legendary band that atone point included Sidney Bechet, was a favorite of the “lostgeneration” in Paris, and is mentioned by various writers and novelistsof the period. Belgian writer Robert Goffin states that “Louis Mitchellhad become the popular star in Paris”. Goffin heard them in 1919, saidit was the first African-American jazz band he had ever heard, and heexpressed his reaction as a “physical shock”, or what reads as cultureshock. He also said that the band played for “the cream of society”,including the Prince of Wales, and that they accompanied the populardancers Maurice Pilcer and Gaby Deslys (for whom the ‘Gaby Glide’ waswritten). One of the most delightful of their recordings is their jazzversion of ‘Now and Then’, made especially poignant by Smith’s solo.Another of their recordings is entitled ‘Hep’ (1922), which certainlypredates the general public’s use of that term outside theAfrican-American community.
Smith played in both the Europe and Mitchell bands, among many others,and the rhythmic concepts of the two bands were somewhat different. TheMitchell band delivers the dominant pre-1920s jazz concept, which isensemble jazz that alternately states and implies multiple, orcross-rhythms. (This is in contrast to Europe’s predominant 4/4 as theunderlying beat*, for example, which by the mid 20s became the way jazzwent, sans cross-rhythms). The Mitchell band rhythmic concept, andindeed, that of most of the other jazz groups before 1920, harkens backto that of the New Orleans bands and the predecessor Caribbean rhythmsin that regard (see the blog on Caribbean/New Orleans); they presentensemble jazz with an overlay of cross rhythms (the simultaneous use oftwo or more conflicting rhythmic patterns or accents) above the metricfoundation. The accents of the cross-rhythmic phrases fall around theregular meter, ahead or behind the regular meter. So with Mitchell andlike bands, the accenting is not regular, and the shifting accentscreate rhythmic tension. The rhythmic overlay may not be as obvious atall times with Mitchell, but the phrasing and accenting around the beatis almost always there. You find this less in the Europe recordings,where everyone is predominately right on the beat.
In the important book, Jazz Away From Home, the author says, “most ofMitchell’s music was written out and few, if any, solos wereimprovised”. True, but they could and did improvise. Trombonist LeoVauchant is quoted in the same book as saying that in Paris “there wereno good improvisers until the Mitchell band showed up”. In fact,Vauchant says that “Cricket Smith couldn’t have put down what heplayed”, which could only mean that he couldn’t write out what he hadimprovised. This is not to deny, however, the recorded evidence that theband worked from their arrangements and that the occasional improvisedsolo was interspersed. But, developing ensemble choruses was their game,not soloing. Goffin says “the instruments were interwoven into theensembles”, which is an apt description of an earlier jazz ensemblestyle that Mitchell represented, and that was on the way out.
Between 1923 and 1925, Smith also led his own bands billed in variousvenues as “The Real Jazz King’s Crickett. -(jazzparissallesconcerts.ifrance.com) ‘ In Jazz Away From Home AlainRomains indicates that Smith led a band at Zelli s in Paris at somepoint, and the author also mentions that Smith played for allAfrican-American revues that came there. Smith was also with pianistGlover Compton in Paris in 1927 (Who’s Who In Jazz) - perhaps at“Bricktop’s”, the café run by vocalist Ada Smith, where Compton’s bandplayed. In 1929 we find Smith with the Dan Parrish Orchestra (Parrishwas also a former Louis Mitchell band member) that accompanies thewriter and performer, Jean Cocteau, on two recordings made in Paris(Pathe LP 1727261/PM231), fascinating for their juxtaposition ofjazz/dance band arranging with poetry (Kenneth Rexroth didn’t do itfirst). Smith solos on one of the sides.
We can catch up to Smith with trombonist Herb Flemming’s band in SouthAmerica in 1933 and Calcutta, India in 1934 (this group had accompaniedJosephine Baker in Paris). (www.chipublib.org
,Chicago Public Library-Roy Butler). In 1935, Smith is said to haveplayed a season at the Hellendoorn Restaurant, Surabaya, Java, Indonesiawith his own band (Storyville 65). Then, in 1936 and on into 1937, wefind Cricket Smith as the leader of the band that played at the BritishHotel, the “Taj Mahal”, in Mumbai (Bombay), India, and that made recordsthat same year (Harlequin LP HQ 2013) — the hotel is still there. Tenorsax Roy Butler, clarinetist Rudy Jackson, guitarist Sterling Conaway(from DC) and pianist Teddy Weatherford (from Bluefield, Virginia) werein this band. Most of the information available to me on Smith bands inIndia resides in the article on Teddy Weatherford in Storvville 65,6-7/1976 by Peter Darke and Ralph Gulliver. The Darke-Gulliver articlestates that Weatherford took over the band in 1937. The recordingsdocument what you would have heard if you were frequenting colonialhotels in Southeast Asia with the British in the decade prior to WWII,and include some hot Smith. One source says that Smith was part of thevocal quartet with the orchestra; another that he sang like LouisArmstrong.
At some point Smith played in violinist Leon Abbey’s Orchestra at thatsame hotel. The Allmusic website says Abbey was there until 1939.Fernandesh indicates he had an initial stay in 1935 to 1936, and thatCricket Smith’s band filled in between Abbey stays. Apparently Smithotherwise played with Abbey, among others (Chicago Public Library-RoyButler). Smith was in the Teddy Weatherford band that played at theGalle Face Hotel in Sri Lanka (Colombo, Ceylon at that time) in July1939 (Storyville65). The reproduced program from the engagementindicates that ‘Tiger Rag’ was a favorite of patrons. Louis Moreno inthe Storyville article recounts that Smith fell ill with high bloodpressure in October, 1939. Another source states that he continued toplay in India as late as 1941.
Not just expatriates and colonials, it turns out, but Goans and Indianswere listening, too. Naresh Fernandesh has on a number of differentwebsites performed the service of filling in some of the gaps on Smith’sstay in India. (just Google Fernandesh for various sites) and seems tobe doing major research on jazz in India. He relates how these Americanexpatriate musicians influenced Indian and Goan musicians to play jazz,that Smith and the others taught Indian jazzmen (in fact, Goan musicianJosico Menezes, alto, is on the Cricket Smith recordings), and how thatmusical tradition, passed down through generations to the current dayhas even influenced the musical arranging for Bollywood movies. Why Goanmusicians? Well, it was a Portuguese colony, and perhaps more Westerninfluenced musically. There are many sites on the internet that we canvisit that deal with jazz in Goa and Mumbai today; www.jazzgoa.com
, for example.
Smith died in 1947, presumably in India. A statement by one source thatviolinist Leroy “Stuff’ Smith was his son is contradicted by othersources, and would appear not to be so. However, other sources statethat the expatriate trumpet player Arthur Briggs was Cricket Smith’suncle. To hear many of Smith’s recordings, go on the Red Hot Jazzwebsite (Europe, Dabney, Mitchell, and all the rest are represented).
Smith’s playing comes across as controlled, with considerable techniquethat he uses unostentatiously, a strong lead (Goffin says he had “anembouchure of steel”), precise articulation, a good reader, and hisinfrequent recorded solos seem carefully constructed to good effect.(Vauchant goes on to say about the Louis Mitchell band that “they knewabout chords”.. Cricket Smith certainly did.). It would be good to getmore info on Smith, and fill in the gaps. Informed by all thismiscellaneous information, we still don’t know how Smith lived, how hedied, or what he thought musically; and what is published seems torepresent just the bare bones of his extraordinary life experience.
*Elsewhere I have seen publlshed that Europe’s beat was 2/4; I don’tthink they were listening. The development of 4/4 as the underlying beatwas complete by the mid1920s as the norm for dance bands/jazz bands.I’m not trying to say that Europe sounded like 1920s jazz and dancebands in all respects, but that the cited jazz related characteristicsalready predominated in his music.
I should point out that Smith was one of an impressively large number ofAfrican-American expatriate musicians, including many well-knownmusicians, between the World Wars.
Jazz Away From Home, Chris Goddard, Paddington Press, 1979
Jazz, Robert Goffin, Doubleday, 1943
Teddy Weatherford, Peter Darke and Ralph Gulilver, Storyville 65,6-7/1976. Anything we may find implied about Smith’s personality derivesfrom this article, but that’s sketchy.
© John D. Rouse (originally in the 7/06 Potomac River Jazz Club Tailgate Ramblings).