Guitarist Johnny Smith's career spans the decades of the 1940's through the 1990's. From the very beginning of his musical career he influenced the playing of other guitarists. In fact, other guitarists mention Smith almost as often as they mention Charlie Christian as a major influence on their playing. And today, in the late 1990's players still feel and respond to the influence of Johnny Smith. In the preface to Steve Silverman's 1998 transcriptions of Johnny Smith Guitar Solos he acknowledges that Johnny Smith has been "a source" of inspiration and influence on guitarists as diverse as Pat Martino and Chet Atkins.
Even before he hit the New York jazz scene in the late 1940's Johnny Smith was setting an example of great musicianship and brilliant jazz guitar playing. There is a story that Lou Mecca tells about his first meeting with Johnny Smith when Smith was playing trumpet in the army band. This story, told to Just Jazz Guitar Magazine, May 1995, exemplifies the influence Johnny Smith has had on other guitar players. Mecca visited Johnny in the barracks at Valley Forge, VA in the late 1940's. Their discussion immediately went to guitars and Johnny offered his guitar to Mecca and asked him to play something. Lou Mecca played something he knew and Johnny said he like it. Then Johnny proceeded to play several startling pieces including Rhapsody In Blue. Mecca ends this memory by commenting, "I then realized I was in the presence of one of the greatest guitarists of all time ... ".*
Like most of the great jazz guitarists, Johnny Smith started out as an excellent musician first. When he arrived in New York in the late 1940's he moved as easily on to 52nd as he did into playing with the philharmonic. He took up a staff position with NBC and it was while there that he recorded Moonlight in Vermont with Stan Getz. This recording established Johnny Smith as a major talent and in a flurry of recording activity he produced some of the most important recordings in jazz guitar history.
During his tenure at Roost Records, under the auspices of Teddy Reig, he produced a long list of significant recordings that include the great quartet recordings The Johnny Smith Quartet, and The Sound of The Johnny Smith Guitar among others. Also, during this period he made the Man With The Blue Guitar. This album, unusual for its time, has probably been transcribed more than any other Johnny Smith recording. Then there was the Johnny Richards production Annotations of The Muses, on which Johnny Smith displays everything that made him a great musician and an extraordinary guitar player.
Johnny Smith retired from the jazz scene in the 1960's to Colorado where he opened a music store. He continued to play in local nightclubs and made a recording with some local musicians (Reminiscing) that showed he had lost none of the signature Johnny Smith style or technique. His last published recorded work was the Concord Records CD Legends, in 1994. This last recording like The Man With The Blue Guitar is made up of solo guitar pieces that capture the essence of the Johnny Smith guitar.
*Just Jazz Guitar, May 1995 ( http://www.justjazzguitar.com/)
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