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Stuff Smith is a Forgotten Legend who Began in Charlotte

Jazz is in the air these days.

Charlotte’s new Middle C Jazz nightclub, the Bechtler Museum’s sold-out monthly jazz evenings, the crowds of twenty-somethings at GottaSwing Charlotte’s weekly dances, all signal a fresh enthusiasm. Will the music that had its first national heyday back in the 1920s become one of America’s hot sounds of the 2020s?

If you’re into jazz, you likely know the names Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Waller, Nat King Cole or Django Reinhardt. I’ve recently discovered that there’s a thread that connects them all and leads back to Charlotte — particularly to a remarkable music scene at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) in the 1920s.

Stuff Smith started me on this research journey. His 1965 LP Black Violin helped turn me on to the notion that a fiddler could play swinging jazz. I’m perpetually trying to play jazz fiddle myself. Stuff’s hard-driving tone — never too-sweet — and his often-wacky vocals are an inspiration.

Imagine my surprise to discover that Stuff Smith’s own musical journey began at JCSU.

JCSU in the early days of swing

Stuff Smith in Kelly’s Stable, New York City, 1946. (Photo by William Gottlieb)

At age 15, circa 1924, Hezekiah Leroy “Stuff” Smith left his native Ohio with a violin scholarship for the African-American college on Charlotte’s west side. Why here, of all places? A young professor named Phillipe Boden, an immigrant from Haiti, was making JCSU a musical hotbed.

“Here’s the real originator of it all, in the 1920s, a French and piano teacher named Professor Boden,” the late Charlotte jazz educator Morris Donald told me. “They say he was the originator of the JCSU band, taught these guys theory and harmony.”

Two of Boden’s best grads, violinist L. David Taylor and pianist J.H. “Jimmie” Gunn, launched a jazz band. First named Taylor’s New York Serenaders, later Gunn’s Dixie Serenaders, the ensemble toured the eastern United States and performed as far away as Canada into the mid-1930s. Their two recording sessions for RCA Victor are still available today on CD.

One of the Serenaders’ trumpet players was a kid from Cheraw, South Carolina, named John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie. It was his very first professional road gig. Dizzy Gillespie would later rise to fame as an inventor of bebop, the cutting edge of mid-century jazz. President Jimmy Carter honored Gillespie at the White House in 1978.

Meanwhile, when Jimmie Gunn came off the road in the late 1930s, he served as music minister at First United Presbyterian Church on East 7th Street in Charlotte. He is best remembered as an educator, the long-time principal of the elementary school off Albemarle Road that now bears his name.

Stuff and Fats and Django and…

Tom Hanchett’s collection. (Photo by Tom Hanchett)

While Gillespie and Gunn are honored to this day, we’ve neglected Stuff Smith. What was he doing as swing jazz became a national craze during the 1920s and 1930s? Stuff didn’t stay at JCSU long. He headed out on the road with travelling bands, then settled in at the Onyx Club in New York City.

In the 1930s the Onyx on 52nd Street was the spot for swing musicians, both black and white. Fats Waller, renowned pianist and songwriter of hits such as “Aint’ Misbehavin’” led the house band.

Stuff Smith would take over Waller’s ensemble when Fats died in 1943. By then, Stuff was an internationally known recording star. He wrote fun-time ditties like “You’se a Viper,” an ode to marijuana that Fats Waller made an enduring hit as “If You’re a Viper (The Reefer Song).”

Stuff’s nonsense song “I’se a Muggin’” made waves across the Atlantic. He cut it for Vocalion on February 11, 1936. That May in Paris, guitarist Django Reinhardt teamed up with violinist Stephan Grappelli to try recording some American jazz. Their version of “I’se a Muggin’” was among the first records in the much-loved swing genre “le jazz hot.”

Stuff Smith’s performing and recording career stretched three more decades. Among his sidemen were pianists Erroll Garner, later famed for the Top-40 hit “Misty,” and Billy Taylor, long an ambassador for jazz on TV.
Stuff himself appeared on many LPs for the prestigious Verve label, which paired him with unforgettable vocalist Nat King Cole, with piano giant Oscar Peterson — and with old Carolina friend Dizzy Gillespie.

Stuff Smith died in Munich, Germany, in 1967. The youngster who’d showed up at JCSU with his violin to study under Phillipe Boden and David Taylor sure had gone a long way. The jazz sound that his generation had crafted was now the world’s music.

Tom Hanchett is historian-in-residence with the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room at the uptown Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. Catch him at Gottaswing Charlotte talking Stuff Smith on Feb. 7 at 7:30 p.m., followed by an Intro to Swing Dancing lesson for those interested. 

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