Paul Smith, jazz pianist and accompanist to Ella Fitzgerald on some her most beloved recordings, passed away on June 29th in a Southern California hospital of a heart attack after a career in music that spanned some 70 years. I heard the news from my former engineer Dominic Robelotto yesterday as I waited in line at the Osh Hardware store. Dominic and I recorded Paul on the second AIX Records recording session back in August of 2000.
Paul Smith was born in San Diego, California. He began piano lessons at age 8, led swing bands in high school and was a full-time musician by his late teens. After playing early on with Johnny Richards in 1941 and spending a couple of years in the military, he worked with Les Paul (1946–1947) and Tommy Dorsey (1947–1949) before moving to Los Angeles and becoming a studio musician. In 1942, he played in a band led by Ozzie Nelson, who later became a TV star on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
Smith has recorded frequently both with his trios and as a soloist. In addition he is featured on work of artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Anita O’Day, Buddy DeFranco, Louie Bellson, Steve Allen, Stan Kenton, Mel Tormé and others. In addition to recording with Dizzy Gillespie, Anita O’Day, Buddy DeFranco, Louie Bellson, Steve Allen and Stan Kenton (among others), he toured off and on during 1956-1978 as a conductor and pianist for Ella Fitzgerald.
Mr. Smith a great ear for music…so much so that he could imitate the musical style of any jazz pianist from Fats Waller to Art Tatum to George Shearing, but “I never became deadpan serious about jazz or wanted to sit and play jazz in a club all night,” he said in 1994.
“To me, piano is fun and games,” he added, noting that he often interjected humorous musical asides and jokes in his improvised solos. “I figure one good laugh is worth 1,000 good choruses. And if I get that one laugh, then maybe they’ll listen to the 1,000 choruses.”
Paul Smith from the AIX Records project called “The Paul Smith Trio”
The AIX Records included Paul along with Jim DeJulio on acoustic bass and Dave Tull on drums. The session was one of our first and did include rudimentary video. But apparently, no one told Paul about that. He showed up in shorts, a Hawaiian Shirt and white tennis shoes! I’ve received dozens of emails from fans who love this recording because of its casual nature…everybody remembers Paul in his tux accompanying Ella. The product page is located here.
Paul was a flawless accompanist, according to Nicholson wrote in his 1993 biography of Ella Fitzgerald. “He never gets in Ella’s way with the superfluous or superficial, yet he has the technique and the imagination to complement rather than complicate.” His playing was understated, fluid and sensitive to the needs of the job at hand.
On his AIX Records project, he revisited standards like “On Green Dolphin Street”, “Have You Met Miss Jones” and “Lullaby Of Bird land”. His large hands with their reach of a 12th (that’s a lot!) graced the Zipper Auditorium 9 Foot Model D Steinway on 10 tunes and they are each gems.
Perhaps it was kismet or some other sort of cosmic connection, but I mentioned Paul’s project during an interview with Scott Wilkinson and David Bott of AVS Forum just a few days before his death. He was a rare pianist…a man with both flawless technique and a creative imagination!
Paul Smith will be missed.