Willie Smith (alto saxophonist)

William McLeish Smith (November 25, 1910 – March 7, 1967) was one of the major alto saxophone players of the swing era. He also played clarinet and sang.

Willie Smith
(Photograph by William P. Gottlieb)
Background information
Birth nameWilliam McLeish Smith
BornNovember 25, 1910
Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.
DiedMarch 7, 1967(1967-03-07) (aged 56)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
InstrumentsAlto saxophone
Years active1920s–1960s

Early life

Smith was born in Charleston, South Carolina,[1] but raised in Cleveland, Ohio. His first instrument was clarinet and his education was in chemistry.[2] He received his chemistry degree from Fisk University, an HBCU.[2]

Later life and career

In 1929 Smith became an alto saxophonist for Jimmie Lunceford's band, becoming one of the main stars in the group.[2] In 1940 he led his own quintet as a side project.[3] His success with Lunceford had lost its charms by 1942 as he now wanted more pay and less travel.[2] Smith moved to Charlie Spivak for a year and was in the navy for another year.[2] He then switched to Harry James's orchestra, where he made more money, and stayed with him for seven years.[2] After that he worked with Duke Ellington and Billy May.[2] He was also part of the Gene Krupa Trio, and can be heard on the 1952 live Verve album The Drum Battle, part of the Jazz at the Philharmonic series (battle is with Buddy Rich). In 1954 he returned to Harry James's band.[2] Added to all this he was involved in Jazz at the Philharmonic and worked with Nat King Cole and Charlie Barnet.[4]

He died of cancer on March 7, 1967, in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 56.[2]

Playing style and legacy

Jazz critic John S. Wilson described Smith as "one of the triumvirate of great jazz alto saxophonists before Charlie Parker arrived. The other two were Johnny Hodges, who had a fat, luscious tone, and Benny Carter, a model of clean, pure-toned playing. Stylistically, Smith fell between Carter and Hodges for he combined some of Carter's clarity and singing directness with a variant of Hodges' gut sound."[5]


With Jimmie Lunceford

  • Stomp It Off (1934-1935 recordings, GRP Records, 1992 compilation)
  • Lunceford Special (Columbia Records, 1939-1940 recordings, ca. 1971, 2001 reissues)

With Louis Bellson

With Dizzy Gillespie

With Duke Ellington

  • Seattle Concert (RCA Victor - LJM-1002, March 25, 1952)

With Harry James

With Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich


  1. "Yesterday in Afro-American History". (November 27, 1969) Jet. p. 11.
  2. Yanow, Scott "Artist Biography". AllMusic. Retrieved August 14, 2015.
  3. Classicjazzguitar.com
  4. Cduniverse.com
  5. Wilson, John S. (December 20, 1970) "Billy Taylor's Big Economy Jazz Band". The New York Times. p. 100.
  6. "Harry James And His Orchestra – Harry James And His Orchestra 1948-49". Discogs. Retrieved 20 December 2016.
  7. "Harry James And His Orchestra – Wild About Harry". Discogs. Retrieved 2015-12-18.
  8. "Harry James And His Orchestra – The New James". Discogs. Retrieved 2015-12-24.
  9. "Harry James And His Orchestra – Harry's Choice". Discogs. Retrieved 2015-12-11.
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