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Cladys "Jabbo" Smith Papers

One and one-quarter linear feet of papers, [1937], 1954-1991, detail the achievements of Cladys "Jabbo" Smith (1908-1991), the Jenkins Orphanage-trained brass player, singer and composer who has been called "The Trumpet Ace of the '20's"--thought by some to have been Louis Armstrong's only serious competition in the late 1920s and early '30s--and has come to be ranked as one of the top jazz artists of all time. He has also come to be seen as the Dizzy Gillespie of that era and thus described as "perhaps the first swift trumpeter, a forerunner of the bebop style" ( Village Voice, February-March 1987). Music historian Gunther Schuller, who devotes five pages to Smith in his 1968 book Early Jazz, speaks of him as "a musician's musician" and characterizes his playing as "always dramatic and unconventional; making a dull record seems to have been impossible for him. He had a vivid imagination and evidently by virtue of a natural embouchure and an excellent technical foundation, could realise anything that came to his mind. His endurance and range were formidable, and I believe that he must have outclassed Armstrong in these respects in 1929."

Numerous feature articles, interviews, reviews, and discographies in such periodicals as ArtScene, Cadence, Coda Magazine, down beat, Footnote, Jazz Journal, Melody Maker, The Mississippi Rag, The New York Times, Record Review, Revue Musicale de Suisse romande, and The Villager provide the facts on the life and work of this man who Whitney Balliett, in an essay in the New Yorker of 3 December 1979, said had been "a legend half his life." In this essay the Georgia-born Smith is quoted at length regarding his experiences growing up in Charleston's Jenkins Orphanage--"I cried for three months after I got there. The orphanage was famous all over that part of the South. Mothers used it as a weapon: `You watch out, now, or I'll send you to Jenkins!'" He further reveals--"At Jenkins, they started you in playing when you were about eight years old. The orphanage took children from the cradle, and the little ones stayed in the yard and were called yard boys. When the time came to learn an instrument, the teacher would come out in the yard and call, `You! Come here! You! Come here!' They taught everybody in the same room. They started me on the trumpet, but I learned to manage all the brass instruments. And they taught you to read right off. Musicians were always amazed later that I could read anything at sight."

A small unit of Smith's letters written from various places where he was living or performing--St. Paul, the Bahamas, Milwaukee, New Orleans--reveals something of his domestic and financial affairs, his efforts to promote his compositions, and his 1958 campaign to establish in Milwaukee an organization called "Jabbo's Music Box Musicians and Entertainers Club, Inc."--"The time has come...when we as a group of Negro's should--instead of depending solely on the white people of our community for our livelihood, to band together and create our own jobs and security--at least partially." A sample blank letterhead with a Milwaukee address lists him as manager of the Sepia Music-Theatrical Talent Agency. In a letter of 22 August 1979 to "Dear friend Marc," Smith recounts one of the European jazz trips he made late in life--"We had a very short but successful trip. The whole trip took five hours playing time. One night at The Hague--two days lay off in Paris--three days in Nice. We didn't play in Nice but we stayed there while we played an engagement in a town about five miles from Monte-Carlo and two engagements in Antibe. We then played a date in Brussels and that was it." One undated page in Smith's hand is a paean to "Black Jazz" which incorporates an appeal "to each and every socalled black person to not only feel proud but to defend this heritage with their very soul....The greatest original contribution to this country any ethnic group has ever made is black jazz[.]"

In addition to miscellaneous printed items, contracts, photographs and specimens of his compositions, the collection contains files of material on "One Mo' Time," the hit 1920s-era vaudeville-jazz musical which originated in New Orleans in 1979 and featured Smith as a special guest artist. The show ran for two years and played in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Houston. A notice in The Villager, 15 November 1979, declared--"The real star of the show is...Jabbo Smith. The moment he takes stage--and take it he does--we feel something of the elegance, sexiness, good humor, and authority which were the hallmarks of the black vaudeville entertainers of those years."

Program books in the collection highlight some of the domestic and European appearances Smith made during the last period of his public rediscovery: Northern Jazz Festival (The Hague, 1979), Festival International du Jazz d'Antibes (Juan-les-Pins, 1979), Kool Jazz Festival (New York, 1982), International Dixieland Festival (Leiden, 1982), Oude Stijl Jazz Festival (Breda, 1983) and Jazz Fest Berlin '86. Also included is a two-record album set, "Jabbo Smith: Hidden Treasure," produced by his friend Lorraine Gordon on the Jazz Art label and featuring his vocal, trumpet, and trombone work from a 1961 session, when the fifty-three-year-old Smith had been out of the public eye for twenty years--"It is a testament to his genius that his unique `sound' was still there" (album notes).

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