The Detroit jazz world recently lost a great musician. Alma Smith, a jazz pianist and vocalist passed away last Sunday.
In my quest of learning more about female jazz musicians, I was introduced to Smith and her music by my mentor Jim Gallert, who co-wrote the book Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit, along with Lars Bjorn. Gallert raved about Smith and told me about how great of a pianist she was, and never neglected to mention how she could hold her own with the best jazz musicians in the city.
Smith was raised in Detroit and became a child prodigy, mastering the piano. She made a name for herself in the jazz world when there were not many female jazz instrumentalists in the mainstream. During the 1940s, she was a member of the jazz trio, The Counts and Countess, which featured guitarist John Faire and bassist Curtis Wilder. The group performed all over the country, and recorded extensively. Smith peppered her music with a sophisticated elegance and as Gallert said, she told a story in her songs. And the blues were in her blood.
Her last album, 2001’s, Ballads, Blues, etc, consists of various standards and early tunes from her time with The Counts and Countess. Along with Detroit-based musicians, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Bert Myrick, Smith puts a unique spin on classic blues tunes, “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues” and “Three Handed Woman” and cleverly tickles the ivory on jazz standards “What a Wonderful World” and “One For My Baby.”
She also remained close to her hometown of Detroit, and held various residencies at clubs around the city, including the famous jazz base, Bakers Keyboard Lounge.
Although I never got the opportunity to meet Smith, I was told she was a wonderful person and always had a great spirit.
It always warms my heart to see female jazz instrumentalists who have continued to denounce the idea that jazz is strictly supposed to be played by men. Alma Smith not only defied that stereotype, but she stayed true to her music and did not let anyone stop her from accomplishing her dreams.
Check out Alma’s homage to Detroit.