He looked like anything but a jazz musician. Throughout his life, Paul Smith cultivated the virtue of discretion with absolute determination. He was discreet even in his utterly vulgar name. But he was a giant in both literal and metaphorical senses of the word. “Beyond his physical stature,” wrote critic John S. Wilson, “he possesses superlative piano technique that shocks first-time listeners.” Smith died on June 29 in California at the age of 91.
In Spain he could be seen several times, sheltering in the shadow of Ella Fitzgerald. For more than three decades, the pianist was the singer’s faithful squire, who appreciated his discretion and reliability above all else. Smith was always there when the Great Lady of Song needed him, also in Berlin, that historic February 13, 1960, when they both recorded one of the milestones of jazz on disk: Ella in Berlin. But Sarah Vaughan, Pearl Bailey, Dinah Shore, Anita O’Day, Rosemary Clooney, and even Doris Day also tapped into Smith’s talent at one point or another. The pianist ended up taking a liking to accompanying singers (and if female, the better), which allowed him to display his gifts of discretion, elegance and good taste, which are precisely the ones that look the least, but are most appreciated. “An accompanist must put his ego on the shelf and act selflessly,” declared the pianist; “His mission is to make the singer sound better than she would without him.”
Born in the Californian town of San Diego in 1922, Paul Tatcher Smith belonged to the select group of West Coast jazz musicians known for their sense of swing elegant, sober and light. Together with saxophonist Georgie Auld, he recorded one of the programmatic albums of the style, Georgie Auld and his Hollywood all stars. Like most of the west coasters, Smith worked hard as a session musician at the film studios (NBC and Warner Brothers), a job that he combined with his work as a music director at the show by Steve Allen. Somehow, the late jazz player managed to combine all of this with his work as Ella’s pianist and musical director, in whose position he remained from 1956 until the early nineties; and with Sammy Davis, Jr., of whom he was also musical director for four years. He still had time to record albums as a leader, more than 60, according to his discographers, which could seem an exaggerated number in who tried to go unnoticed in the eyes of the majority, if it were not because, in addition to accompanying, Smith was an outstanding soloist. There is no lack, among the specialized critics, who has compared him with Oscar Peterson, and who with Bill Evans. In fact, Smith had something of both.