Apart from "Old Blue Eyes," Ella, and Tony Bennett, I'm not really a huge fan of jazz singing. I'll take a John Coltrane record any day, but even I have been jonesing for someone to bring the format back into mainstream prominence. Jeffery Smith could finally be the male jazz vocalist that I have been craving. Granted there is Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling, and Kevin Mahogany, but none has really captivated the medium like Frank Sinatra once did. Then there's Andy Bey, who just released a gem, but he's not really on a label. Bennett can still swing with the best of them, but apart from the Visa Check Card commercial (his last thing with the Sesame Street characters is not really jazz), he has not done anything to equal the MTV Unplugged phenomenon. So there is a huge void in an already small field in regards to jazz male vocalists, but Smith, with some push from his label could be the go to guy. If you have any doubts, check out his latest Verve release, "Down Here Below." The guy has chops and can hold a tune. He talked to me about that record, his big band days, his views on the lack of male jazz vocalists, all unedited and in his own words.
FJ: Let's start from the beginning.
My first Billie Holiday record was where my interest came from. When I a kid, I was a closet jazz kid. I came up in the era of Motown and all that sort of thing, but I had this other side of me that really loved, like, I'd gotten this album called "Lady in Satin" (Columbia) and the orchestration is what did it for me. I would stand in front of the record player and let the music come over my shoulder and I would sing with it. It's just the music itself that sucked me right into it. I originally, I'm also an artist. I paint as well. So I started out, originally, as a costume designer, but I was still singing all the time, whenever I had the opportunity. One day, I came up with a decision, "This has got to stop. I'm going to do what's in my heart." And that was the music. That was at around twenty, twenty-one years of age. I just kept pursuing it. That was in California. I knew I was destined to move back to New York, because that's my home really. So I came back to New York in '85 and I stayed here about seven years. I did the whole circuit here. Then I went to France. That was a holiday for me originally. I did the whole, every American that comes to Paris, if they are a singer or a performer, there is a circuit that you do. So I did that, but within seven months, I met Claude Bolling and became the singer for his orchestra. I was with him for almost seven years after that. I met Shirley Horn in France and that's how I got signed to Verve, was through Shirley. She had heard some stuff that I had done and she was interested in producing me and so she produced it and accompanied me on the record. That's "Ramona." That was out in '95. So I did that with her. That was actually dedicated to my mother and then I produced the second one, which was "A Little Sweeter" with Kenny Barron, and now this one, this new record. I've been really fortunate. One thing that I'm really happy about is the fact that I did work with the big band, because that is like a really great school. It's a very, it's something that every jazz vocalist should have the opportunity to do. Unfortunately, they don't.
FJ: In what ways did your work with the big band help in your development?
I think because it's very regimented, there's a lot of discipline. It teaches you discipline. Everybody can pretty much improvise, I think. I improvise pretty well with a quartet or something like that, but when you're singing with the big band, it teaches you how to really listen and respect your fellow musician. I had the opportunity in France, about three years ago, maybe four, it was just before Mercer died. Mercer Ellington passed away. We had done a concert where they put both big bands together. It was Claude Bolling and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and had them together. I came out and I did "What Am I Here For?" (Ellington) and that was incredible to have the two of them behind you like that. But one thing, I saw them both play separately because they both played the same bill and I could see the differences. I was a little bit, and this is between you and me, Fred, a little disappointed in the Ellington band because there's sort of like a big band edict, and I didn't think they really had it. You had a lot of the guys, everyone one of them was so equally talented. One was just as talented as the next one, but they all wanted to show you it at the same time. You found where a lot of these guys were all playing, doing their improve stuff. When you have your solo, that's when you take your solo, but some of these guys were just playing like all out there and it became very crazy. That's the only way that I can put it. Claude Bolling is probably the closest thing to the old school. He's very, very, very, like all of his band members, he supplies all of the clothes for the big band, not the singers, but the musicians. He got a thing with Yves St. Laurent and another designer sponsored them with clothes and stuff. From head to toe, he's very serious. >From the minute you walk on the stage, the band members are all really seasoned, but moreover, they have a specific grace about them when they get on the stage. They're really disciplined. That's the only way I can put it. The other band, which bothered me a little bit too, I remember it was very hot. It was a really hot summer night day. Claude, he's provided for the band and we provide for ourselves, the other, the singers, just the right clothes. They look nice and everything, but it's cool. You're cool. You can wear a leather suit in the summer. And these guys came out in everything they could wear, whatever they had on, on the bus, they wore that, and then they took a Duke Ellington T-shirt and put it on over that. It still had the press of the square marks from the folding in the shirts and it's like twenty-five Black Americans in France, on stage like that. I was, I couldn't, there was no excuse for it. If you want to dress like that, wear those African pants, you know, that's something you do if you're like a quartet or quintet and you're playing outside. It's different thing, but big band is big band. When you see a big band or when you think of one, you think of elegance. There's a certain way you carry yourself when you're up there. And Mercer was the worst of all because he came out wearing a pair of Bermuda shorts that looked liked boxer shorts and he had on a pair of wing tipped shoes, and dress socks up to his knee, and a jacket, and a baseball cap turned sideways, with his father's T-shirt on. I was standing next to Claude when he went on stage and Claude in French just went off. I thought to myself. I said, "If Duke Ellington could see this, he's probably spinning around in his grave right about now." I think the Europeans have a better prospective about the way it's supposed to be. It is an American culture. The music itself is something that you can't take away from an American. That is our culture. That's what we bring there, but when you're playing before people in a foreign country, who have in the years before that, welcomed us in the past. They've welcomed people like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, people like that. In an era where they dressed to the teeth, but moreover, when they came out and they performed, they still had that discipline where everybody plays together. They reading right off the chart and you don't get up and do you're thing, whatever it is, until you're supposed to do a solo. Everybody can't do it at the same time, particularly when you have twenty musicians. That's what it taught me. I learned a lot through that, just how to, you can do a little improve, improvisation as a singer, but not that much. You have to know where to draw the line, where it's no longer music. It can loose a lot of things by not paying attention to that sort of thing.
FJ: I lament on the fact that the Persian community and other European cultures have embraced the music with open arms, yet here in the States, the appreciation for the music has deteriorated.
You know, Fred, it's really sad. There are a bunch of comparisons that I can tap into. It's like they have more respect for jazz, actually music in general, just a lot of other forms of music that they adapt, even pop. As far as jazz is concerned, they have such a high regard for it. If you're a jazz musician, you get a lot of, I had an accident in France and the doctor that treated me, this dentist. I had surgery, major surgery. This guy did all this work, and now we're talking thousands of dollars of surgery and he did not charge me a dime. And I was telling him, I was trying to work out a way to pay him, and he said, "No, no, you're an artist. You don't pay." I went, "Oh, well, OK." That's the kind of respect that they have for it. Here, you look at the Grammy Awards, that's the perfect example, the Grammys. When was the last time you saw a jazz personality go and receive their award. You don't see it. And the only way you do see it is when they're getting ready to go to a commercial and they have those freeze frames of the artists picking them up. And that's not all the time. Shirley Horn, who is an icon, Shirley went and she won the award this year. You didn't see a thing. They showed a picture of the award and it flashed across the screen, "Shirley Horn for Best Jazz Vocals." The other thing is they don't differentiate the sexes. There's not a male or female jazz vocalist. It's just vocalist. They've really lost, there's not enough respect for that medium of music, that style of music. It should have been held up a lot tire than it is, particularly considering the fact that forty-five years ago, or how many years ago did the awards begin. In the beginning jazz was the music. That was the pop music. You would have Duke Ellington and all that stuff, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan. We they performed whatever they were performing, that was really the pop music back then. That was the popular music. There was no rock and roll. There was no hip hop or rap. That really was the music and now, they barely give it any airtime at all. Children in Europe, like everywhere I travel, even in places like Korea and things like that, the people have such a high regard, the people that come out at least, have such a high regard for the music. Even the children, I have had kids line up for autographs and they were anywhere from twelve on up. They would, while you're signing the autograph, they would say, "I saw Dizzy Gillespie when I was six years old." And they remembered it. Half the kids in the United States don't even know who Dizzy Gillespie was. So it's really sad. It's one of the forms of music where you can take any other form and make it that. And make it sound like something. From taking songs from Broadway shows and just breathing new life in it. It's sad. It's really sad, but I'm one of the people that, I'm hoping and praying and if I have anything to do with it, that this is not going to die. With the male vocalist, it's a forget about it. How many male jazz vocalists do you know?
FJ: This music has become a secondary art form in this country, but even within that, the male jazz vocalist should be on the endangered list.
Exactly. You know, it's ridiculous. It's absurd. I'm the only male jazz vocalist on this label, on Verve, from the traditional standpoint, I think there is one other, I can't remember his name off hand, and they're calling it jazz vocals, but it's really not. He's still going into hip hop thing. You can count on one hand the jazz vocalists on all labels now. It's pretty sad. It's Kevin (Mahogany), me, Kurt Elling on Blue Note, and Giacomo Gates (Sharp Nine), whom, I really like his work and I think he's underrated, Andy Bey (Evidence). Have you heard his new album?
FJ: "Shades of Bey," good record
. I love that record. I really do. I saw him a couple of months ago and I told him that. It's really weird. I just think that they've let it slide. Joe Williams is dead. Mel Torme can't sing anymore because he's had that stroke. There's not, not only were there not a lot even before, but they're not even trying to prepare for the future, for anyone to fill their shoes. You've got plenty of female vocalists, loads of them. It's inundated with it to the point where you have some female vocalists that are, if you put them on a scale on one to ten, they would probably rate a three. But they're still doing better than some guys who would rate a ten. It's really, I don't know where that's going or why. It's a very strange thing and I've asked record executives that and some of them say, "Oh, that's true." And then I'm looking at them like, "Duh, where do we go from here?" And they look at you with this blank expression. It's sort of like some of them don't even know why it's like that. Some of them, I think some of them do know, but it's so preposterous that they can't even let it come out of their mouth. It makes them look really stupid. I had a meeting yesterday up at Verve and we were talking, and he's a real nice guy and very supportive of me on this end, but there are certain things like myself that I would like to see happen. It's not asking for a lot. I'm not asking for a million dollars, although it couldn't hurt. I just feel that there are certain things that should have been done that have not been done to help boost, simple things as far as publicity and all that stuff goes. I told them once, "If you put a fraction of the push that you put behind say a Dee Dee Bridgewater, behind me or any of the artist. They would have a serious, serious star on their hands." Everybody keeps passing the buck, "Oh, now so and so is supposed to do this." And then when you get to so and so, "Yes, I was supposed to but." But what? Where's the beef? What's going on here? I just transported myself from Europe here in September. I moved back to the States, primarily because I wanted to be here when this record was released. When I told the people at Verve that I was moving back, they kept saying, "Oh, that's the best thing you could have done. It's really smart that you do it because you really need to get within the eye of the American public." And I'm doing this. So everything I was supposed to do, I did. So far, as far as I could see, nobody has matched that within the company. There's a lot of empty promises there and every now and then, you start to question yourself, "Is it me? Am I singing flat? What is it? Do they not like what I'm doing?" That doesn't seem to be the case. Some of the best responses that you can get come from your peers. Since I've been back here, I've sat in on a lot of different things and I've done some concerts at Sweet Basil and other places. In the audience the audience was comprised of certain names, like, people who were just in it, old school people, like Benny Golson, people like that. Benny and his wife, I met in France and he's raved about the work I do. He didn't have to do that. I know it comes from the heart. So what I'm saying is that, that meant a lot to me that I'm accepted by them and also because I'm such a big person. I'm a big guy. I'm hard not to recognize. There have been some people, just people who have bought the record in the past, everyday people who come up and say, "Oh, you're Jeffery Smith aren't you? I really like you." So it is a sellable produce. I don't really understand why they don't get up off of it.
FJ: You say it is a sellable product and I find it hard to argue with you, but on the flip side, the blunt fact is that the record companies have chosen to ignore male jazz vocalists and there must be a justifiable reason for that. Now regardless of whether you agree with this trend, place yourself in their shoes for a moment and tell me, how would you approach selling the music?
To me, I would, I think I would try to put a little bit of nostalgia in it. I would want to keep tradition. One, by grooming him from head to toe. Having him groomed properly and also when he's sent out there, send him with the best sidemen you can get, and just publicity. And when you believe in something like that, just go for it. Put the money, put a little money behind it. The thing is, it's funny, not that I've gotten a whole lot of it either, but I haven't asked for any money from them. All I've asked for is that they promote whatever it is that they've produced. It's stupid to record an album and put all that money into recording a record and then not promote it. It's stupid. It's almost as though, you kind of get the feeling after awhile, that it's almost a conspiracy to let people, sort of like the artists, they always say with painters, the real great ones are only great after they're dead. I don't want to wait until after I'm dead. When I think of it as being a conspiracy, they may know how good it is, but it's sort of like warehousing and warehouse it until these people are out of the scene and then they can sell it or do whatever they want with it.
FJ: Let's talk about your last few albums for Verve, starting with your debut, "Ramona," then "A Little Sweeter," and your latest CD, "Down Here Below."
The first album, the one with Shirley, Shirley produced that, so it kind of separated that from "A Little Sweeter" and from all the rest. "A Little Sweeter," I produced that one and that was my first chance really out of the gate so to speak, as far as my experience. "Ramona," Shirley produced that and actually, even when she did the mixing and stuff like that, I wasn't even present for any of that. She wanted to do everything and I went by it because I said this is a woman who has done this dozens of times and I trusted her just to do what she was going to do. I think when they say you're your own worst critic, she was afraid that I would have been so critical about myself, that I would have wanted to change everything. And I abided by that, I didn't go to the mixing or anything. But then when I did "A Little Sweeter," that was mine. So I got to do that. "Ramona" was a labor of love because it was to my mother and my mother was a really good friend of mine, not just inspirational, but anything that I felt that I wanted to do or could do, she pushed. She was behind me a hundred percent. So that meant a whole lot to me, Shirley telling me that she was interest in recording me, producing me. "A Little Sweeter" is, I think it has a little more contemporary sound. I think each time I do a record, I do it with, I just go for the mood that I'm in. It's the only way that I can explain it. For instance, I did "Eleanor Rigby" on that one and that was a song that I loved, but I always heard it as a real serious ballad. I never heard it as a "dah-dah-dah-dah-dah." But even then, people who heard it were saying to me, "That's the first time I listened to the lyrics, really listened to the lyrics." Normally people think, because it's upbeat, they don't really get the gist of it. They don't really get the meaning, rather, of it. This is a very sad song. This woman is lonely. It's all about loneliness. So I 'm not really big on turning ballads the other way around, turning ballads into uptempo songs. For instance, last week, I did a thing with John Hicks at Sweet Basil and they had an arrangement of "Come Sunday" that was almost like a bossa. John's wife was saying, "You should do this with the band because they have an arrangement of it." I said, "I don't want to do that." For one, it's actually one of the songs that's in a hymnbook and that's not what it means. It's just not happening, so I just decided, "No." I said, "No," flat out. "We'll do it with just the rhythm section. We'll do it the way it's supposed to be." Speeding up the tempo and all that, that's how you can loose certain things. Sometimes people are so busy tapping their feet, they're not really listening to what they're supposed to be listening to. They're not really getting the meaning. They're getting the motion, not the meaning. I feel that all three of them (records) are different from one another. I think they show progress for me, a lot of growth, considerable growth between each one. A lot of that growing occurred, not necessarily in years or in time, it happens sometimes, it happens there. The change happens right while I'm doing it. It can be a discovery or a revelation of sorts.
FJ: "Down Here Below" is one of a few Abbey Lincoln originals on your new release, how much of an influence has she been to you?
Big. Big, big. One of her songs is the title song of the album, "Down Here Below." I relate very much to her music. I think she's, she just, it is her music. Not only because she wrote it, but it's like, she's very profound to me. When I was a kid, around twelve years old, I had seen Abbey Lincoln (Ivy Moore) on screen with Sidney Poitier (Jack Parks) in "For Love of Ivy." It was then I discovered Shirley Horn at the same time because Shirley was singing the title track of the song, or the movie, rather, "For Love of Ivy." After that, I went out and I bought my first Shirley Horn record and Abbey Lincoln. Abbey, I was just in awe of her. Seeing her on the screen, there was something about her that I liked a great deal. She, and I've gotten to know her. I visited her home and I've seen her in France. We actually played the same places. We were actually on the same bill a couple of times. When I told her that I was planning to do one of her songs, she said, "OK, that's good." Later, after I recorded it, I saw something with her an at the end of it she said, "My name is Abbey Lincoln and my music is mine." And I went, "Oh, God. I'm hope I'm not stepping on toes here." She had gone to France last April and they play two songs for her and she sat in their office and cried. Then the following week, I was at a venue to see her. She was in concert there and the place was completely sold out and I'm standing in the back. She starts to sing "Down Here Below," and they were playing the introductions. She shouted out in the middle of it, "Jeffery Smith! This is for you!" And she dedicated both those songs to me on stage. I was blown away, completely blown away. The fact that her music meant that much to me, but it meant more that she liked it so much, that she appreciated it. We sat down and we talked. I had gone to her house and let her hear the completed version. What she had heard before was a rough mix. She heard the completed version and she said to me, "There are some people in this world with the gift to be able to truly sing virtually anything you put in front of them and know what they're singing about. And you're one of them." Coming from her, that was the greatest compliment that I could receive. I watched when she was listening to the songs and every now and then she would say, "Ah, huh." Saying, "You got it. You understand it. You know what I'm talking about." And that's the most important thing really, and that's story telling. Really understanding what you're talking about when you tell it. It's a spiritual thing for me, music. It's a way of venting a lot of stuff that's in there and with music, the music behind, the sidemen and stuff like that, that just pushes out even further.
FJ: Let's talk about one of your sidemen on your new album, Rodney Kendrick, who arranges a couple tunes. He's a very unique player, a rarity.
Oh, yes. Originally, "A Little Sweeter," that's the title of one of his songs. I was originally going to record that on "A Little Sweeter." I did record it, but I didn't put it on because I didn't like the way it came out. Instrumentation and everything was not right. It didn't work out. It didn't work with the lyrics. The lyrics fit perfectly with it, but there was no true arrangement. Everybody seemed to be playing over one another. I didn't use it one there, but I still kept the title because I wanted "A Little Sweeter." "A Little Sweeter" was indicative of where I am. I feel like that record was a little sweeter than the first. I've always kept in touch with Rodney. Rodney's a really good friend of mine. We've hung for a long, long, long time. I've known Rodney for about ten years. He always had that. I've loved his music and I just felt it was going to take it to another place. I wanted this record to be very eclectic, which I think it is. It's got a different feel. Between him and Talib (Kibwe), there's a differences between the styles and all that sort of thing. Rodney was in that funk mode at this time because he was recording his own record, another record and he had gone hip hop and all that sort of thing. We had sat down and discussed it and he said, "You've got to do something that has an R&B flare to it." I told him I wanted something, but I didn't want to go completely R&B, soul, that sort of thing. I believe when Ella and all them were doing their music and it was pop, that was the music of the time. I had mine too. Mine was a particular era when they were doing "Love on a Two Way Street" and "People Make the World Go Round" and Marvin Gaye and this sort of thing. That was really my era of coming up, along with the jazz thing, but there was still that side of my life. I wanted to put a little bit of that in there as well. Rodney was one of the people that made it very eclectic. I think he did a great job on it. He added just that little bite that I really needed. You can hear it, getting the feedback from other people who have heard it. Heard the songs that he had arranged on it, that they really dug it, particularly the organ thing. John Peters plays organ on it. It has that flavor that, it still has a little bit of the seventies, but it's now. It's not really R&B. It's R&B sung with a jazz flare. It's hard to describe, but it's the best I can do.
FJ: You spoke of your interest in painting, what is it about painting that intrigues Jeffery Smith?
It's therapeutic. It's an escape for me. I had stopped for quite a while. I just kept telling myself, "You have got to get back into this. You've got to make use of everything." It's a gift that you were given and I started doing things on the desk at home. I have this pad that I keep on the desk there with my watercolors and stuff like that, so when I am on the phone I doodle and I paint. It got me back in the habit of just doing it on a regular basis. I discovered that every time I sat down and did that I was so, it's very therapeutic. It gets a lot of stuff out of me. It's very peaceful.
FJ: And your legacy?
I hope that I have some way of changing what's going on. I want to put an end to things like kids killing each other. That bothers me a great deal. I think that that with jazz the way it keeps going down and down and down, I'm not saying that jazz is the only music, but it's part of a culture. It is an American culture, art form. We are loosing a lot of our kids to video games and the hip hop thing and wearing your pants with your crouch down to your kneecaps. I just hope that I can influence some kids to want to sing and just bring some joy to somebody else, not just children but people in general. I love energy on stage and the live performances. The feedback that I get from people is that the live performances are far surpassing the records. People say, "I like the records a lot, but hearing you live is something." That I like. I don't want to die, leave here without at least experiencing, I don't want my greatest achievement to be after I'm gone. I'd much rather, I want to , I hope that I can make some kind of difference and just see my name besides the Eckstines and the Williams, people like that, because I really love the music a great deal. Just to have, after it's over or at the end of it, if someone can say, "He was one of the greats." I said to John, "Maybe I should become a heroin addict or something." It seems to me everybody who has all these jones or vices are the ones that are getting it. I don't come with a lot of baggage. I don't. The thing is, I'm not a, I'm pretty sane as a person, so nobody has to chase me through airports. If they say, "Jeffery, you need to be here." I'm there. I'm doing what I'm supposed to do. I'm not a controversial person, but it seems to me that the ones that are making it are. That's compromising me as a person and that's what I don't want to do. This is it. That's all I can really hope for. Since I've been living in Europe for the last seven years, I did really well. I was making a pretty decent living doing what I love to do. I don't just sing. I've done theater and I act as well. I want to be a well rounded entertainer, more of a personality than a star. Stardom is not the thing at all. That comes with its own baggage anyway. I don't really need that. What I would like to do is be as successful as possible. That's all.