Chicago native Mike Smith discovered jazz as a nine-year-old beginning band student. Eight years later he was awarded the coveted Charlie Parker Scholarship to North Texas State University. There he studied under famed saxophone professor Jim Riggs and earned a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Performance.
After spending time with the bands of Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich, Smith joined Frank Sinatra’s core band as lead altoist and music contractor. His stint with Sinatra included television performances and CD recordings, and the Diamond Jubilee and Come Swing With Me tours (with performances in Japan, Australia, the U.S. and Europe—including a gala in Monte Carlo for the Princess Grace Foundation.) Those years on the road inspired his third recording for Delmark Records, “The Traveler.” Smith continued on as lead altoist for Frank Sinatra, Jr., touring Europe and the United States. Smith has performed and recorded with over one hundred jazz greats, including Nat Adderley, Clark Terry, Art Farmer, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Heath, Natalie Cole, Linda Ronstadt, Diane Schuur, Gloria Morgan, Kurt Elling, Nancy Wilson, Frank Sinatra and Frank Sinatra Jr. He is featured as lead altoist on the Harry Connick, Jr. album, “Come By Me,” on CBS Columbia. He also has received critical acclaim for his album “Sinatra Songbook,” which includes liner notes by Frank Sinatra and Frank Sinatra, Jr.
Although tours have taken him to all corners of the globe, Smith has remained active on the Chicago jazz scene. Smith and his quartet have held down Chicago’s longest-running continuous weekly gig––36 years and counting––at Andy’s jazz club in Chicago. On his most recent album, an orchestral work entitled “Close Enough for Love” featuring guest vocalist Kurt Elling on the title tune, Smith arranged and performed multiple instruments, playing up to twenty-eight individual parts in a single number.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you get involved in music?
Mike Smith: I was born on the South Side, in the Roseland neighborhood. When I was ten years old I entered the fourth grade band program at George S. Patton in Riverdale. In that neighborhood band was a big thing. I started on the alto saxophone. I wanted drums, but the band director said there were too many and that I should play saxophone. At that school we actually had two great band directors. The first was Bob Reich, who started the program. Bob was a master at teaching the fundamentals of all the instruments. Then, when I was in eighth grade, Gerry Engelberg took over, a professional musician. It was a grammar school program where you went from kindergarten to eighth grade. It was also at this time that Gus Marisi, a jazz piano/accordionist and public school teacher, helped me learn to read music.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You ended up at North Texas State, a great jazz school. What were the seminal moments between your initial band program and actually getting to North Texas?
Smith: After grammar school, I went to a private, all-boys Catholic school, Marist. We had a solid band program. The director was Frank Manna. They didn’t have a jazz band so he let me put one together. He really let me blossom, so when it was time for college I applied and I got the Charlie Parker Scholarship that’s given to saxophone players at North Texas. It allowed you—at that time—to basically go tuition free. There were a few things we had to pay for and, of course, my parents paid for my housing, but tuition was waived.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you play in bands away from school?
Smith: I was doing a little gigging with a guy named Will Weiderman, a great jazz accordionist. His son was one of my good friends, so I got to meet him. He taught me a lot of songs and tunes so I had been playing a bit before I went to college.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You grew up in an era where jazz wasn’t necessarily the music du jour.
Smith: [laughs] I took a lot of heat from my friends for that. All my friends were listening to rock ‘n’ roll, but I was listening to a great band, Blood Sweat and Tears, and I actually got some of my friends to like some of that stuff. I got through it—I wasn’t always the most popular kid at the party.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you become familiar with the jazz canon––was that on your own?
Smith: It was through the band directors in my grade school and junior high years. One was a trumpet player––a real jazz freak––and my saxophone teacher, who was also the band director. They gave me recordings of people like Cannonball Adderley and Maynard Ferguson, so I got to hear all that stuff. I stayed friends with them when I graduated. In fact, when I graduated college Gerry Engelberg hired me to play in his jobbing bands.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When did you know you were going to make it a full-time career?
Smith: I think in high school. I really wanted to be a musician.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did your parents react to that?
Smith: Very supportive. I have a father who was a CFO in a major corporation, Anixter, and didn’t know anything about music. But he’s the kind of father who says, If my kid likes it and works hard at it, then I’ll support it 100 percent. My mom is very artistic and always encouraged my brother Eric, who plays trumpet, and me to appreciate all the arts. We were very blessed with that.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You had some pretty amazing opportunities come your way right out of college.
Smith: A year after I graduated college, I moved to Chicago and was working around town. I’d become great friends with Mark Colby, who’s a great saxophone player who used to be with Maynard Ferguson. He got me into Maynard’s band.
Smith, pictured second from the left front row, performing with the Buddy Rich Big Band in 1981 at Disneyland.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So that meant you were touring.
Smith: Touring. And then my wife and I had our first child. I was planning to go back on the road with Maynard, but during the interim, when I was at home after our daughter was born, I got a call to go with Buddy Rich. When I was with Maynard I was playing baritone saxophone, even though I considered myself mostly an alto player. Willard Alexander was the booking agent for those two bands, and an opening came up in Buddy’s band. They knew I was off and they asked me if I’d go out with Buddy. So when this opportunity came with Buddy, it was on alto. I jumped at it. Maynard wasn’t real happy with me, but we stayed good friends through the years. When we were with Buddy Rich, we were backing up Frank Sinatra. Frank liked me, and I ended up switching from Buddy Rich to Frank Sinatra. I worked for the Sinatra family for 35 years. From 1981 to 1994 I was with Frank Sinatra Sr. and got to go all around the world with him.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What’s the difference between being on the road with Maynard and Buddy versus Sinatra?
Smith: Big difference, my friend. [laughs] Everything was first class with Sinatra. We flew first class. If we were on a bus, they weren’t Greyhounds, they were tour buses. The money was phenomenal and Frank paid into our pensions. Once you left the house you were on an expense account. You needed a limo to get to the airport—all covered. And my parents were such big Sinatra fans. I grew up listening to that stuff in the house, so when I got that job it was, Oh my gosh!
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Do you consider Sinatra a jazz singer?
Smith: Yes, I do. And you wouldn’t believe the “jazz” people that would come to his concerts. When we played Radio City, you’d look at the front row and there’d be Miles Davis. In Miles’ autobiography he talks about how Sinatra really had a lot to do with his phrasing.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What is it about Sinatra’s singing that places him in the jazz category?
Smith: His time. He really got into the groove and his time was so swinging. Then, he had such great writing going on, with Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Don Costa and Johnny Mandel. Those were the big writers for Sinatra and they were very jazz-oriented. At the same time, Nelson Riddle could turn around and do beautiful stuff—he’d go from swinging to orchestral. With Sinatra, I didn’t play just saxophone––I played flutes and clarinets. Sometimes you’d be playing a Basie arrangement and then you’d turn around and have to pick up a flute and be an orchestral player.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So how did you transition from Buddy Rich to Sinatra? Was it through Frank directly or did it go through the manager?
Smith: We did a lot of Buddy Rich concerts with Frank. We did a television show called Concert of the Americas––you can see it on YouTube. We were playing Radio City and were doing Carnegie Hall. We were basically backing them up for a year, gone weeks at a time, and it was hard on my wife and family. When it was over I decided to get off of Buddy’s band. When I came home, the music contractor for Sinatra called and said, “We’d love you to start working for us.” Frank Jr. was conducting at the time, so I got in very good with him and I started working Frank Jr.’s gigs too. So, I was doing both Sinatras. We were working all year. If we weren’t doing the old man, we were doing Jr.’s gigs. I became very close with Frank Jr.––he was one of my closest friends, the godfather to my youngest son.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: While you were with Sinatra did you work with some of the other musicians in Chicago, like Bill Porter?
Smith: I hired all of those guys, because I became the music contractor. I started hiring all of my friends. How it worked is that the Chicago band would cover as far west as Nebraska, straight up and down, and we’d go as far east as Pittsburgh. Then we had a New York band that covered all the East Coast. We had a Vegas band and a California band that played the entire West.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: This was for financial reasons?
Smith: Yeah, and when we went to Europe, we would use the BBC. Then the staff was the lead players and the rhythm section. The lead trumpet was Buddy Childers and Walt Johnson took over after Buddy retired. We had a lead trombone player, myself on lead alto sax, and Bill Miller was the piano player, bass players, Gene Cherico, Jim Hughart, Paul Rostock, and Chuck Berghofer—great jazz musicians. Irv Cottler was the famous drummer with Sinatra, and on one of our breaks he passed away from a heart attack. Then we went through about five or six drummers. The old man had a hard time “liking” drummers because Irv Cottler was with him for twenty-eight or twenty-nine years, so it was a hard chair to fill. We had some fantastic drummers: Sol Gubin, Ralph Penland, Bob Chmel and Gregg Fields.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It seems that Frank Sinatra Jr. was underrated, because he was living in his father’s shadow. But he was a pretty good musician, wasn’t he?
Smith: Oh, he was a fantastic musician. He was trained in music school and could play piano, read all the scores, and was a great conductor for his father. He knew how to change gears and he stuck with him like glue. And so knowledgeable—I learned a lot from Frank Jr. If we were in New York, we’d go to Patelson’s Music across from Carnegie Hall and get scores, and would be listening to Ravel and Debussy. He was a big student of orchestration. I
Frank Sinatra Jr with Smith in 1989 while performing with Frank Sinatra Sr.
had the opportunity to work with him on a lot of arrangements. He had been after me for a long time to do this new recording, Close Enough for Love, and I kept putting it off. Finally, he called and said, “You know, I don’t ask much from you. Please do this for me.” And I accepted: “Okay, we’ll do it.” So this recording has Frank’s fingerprints all over it. He’d given me two recordings by Pete Rugolo, An Adventure in Sound: Reeds, and Ten Saxophones, Two Basses, and they really opened my ears up to what a woodwind ensemble can do—which is exactly what Frank intended. I had some tunes I was interested in arranging, and Frank suggested a few others. There’s a little bit of drumming and bass lines, but most of it is woodwind orchestra. I played twenty-eight different parts on it. The way I wrote it: instead of trombones, I used four baritone saxophones; instead of trumpets, I used four sopranos; flutes and clarinets replaced the strings. I had completed three orchestrations before Frank’s death [of a heart attack in 2016], but hadn’t gotten far enough in the process to lay down his vocal tracks. So I finished the project on my own. Kurt Elling, who’s also a great friend, came in and sang two of the cuts––“Close Enough for Love” and “Theme from the Sandpiper.”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: “The Shadow of Your Smile.”
Smith: Yes. The way I wrote it is, I took all of the film cues and made a suite out of it. Kurt doesn’t actually start singing until close to three and a half minutes into the song. You don’t even expect that it’s going to happen.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Just to be clear: you did twenty-eight parts yourself?
Smith: Yes, all myself. I had a beautiful recording studio in my house. It took me eight months to do the project, from writing to playing. I have to say I thank Frank now. It was something I didn’t want to do, and now I’m very proud of it. Now that I’m sixty, it’s kind of a culmination of what I’ve done. I played clarinets, saxophones, and flutes, and I wrote it. So if I don’t do another recording, that one is it. It’s not a big swinging album. There are a couple of tunes that swing, but most of it is orchestral. That’s why it’s called Mike Smith’s Woodwind Orchestra.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: And it pays homage to your good friend.
Smith: He was very dear to me and I miss him terribly. I don’t think we had a day where we didn’t talk to each other. He was good to my kids, and my son who became a professional bass player, was our first-call sub when Paul Rostock couldn’t make it. My kid—he’s been around it his whole life so he became quite a bass player. He’s doing extremely well in New York.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you ever consider making the move to New York?
Smith: I did, and I wanted to take my wife and the baby there. She said, “No way. Not gonna happen.” [laughs] We were touring all the time and my parents were here always helping with the kids. The lifestyle––I see how my son lives. He’s in Brooklyn. He’s got a nice apartment, but it’s an apartment. We lived in a house and the kids were brought up in a big house. It’s a different kind of lifestyle. I don’t feel that I missed out on anything, because I played with great musicians from New York, Los Angelos, all over the world, really, and they are all still great friends. All those guys—it didn’t matter that I lived in Chicago, because anyplace is only an airplane ride away. In contrast to that, I have the longest-running gig at Andy’s––thirty-six years. I started there in 1981. We’ve always had a place to play and I’ve always had a way to take care of my jazz habit. I’ve had a phenomenal career—really.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You make it sound like it’s over.
Smith: Well, I don’t know if it’s over. In some ways, some parts of it are. I got a pension out of the Sinatra years. I have friends that I consider way more talented than me who didn’t have the opportunities I had. I’ve really had a great life in music. You know, when you are sixty you start to look at things a little differently. I miss what I had, but I had it for a long time.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’ve played with some all-time greats.
Smith: Yeah, and I did a lot of recordings, a lot of TV commercials. I came up at the tail end of an era that the young guys don’t have—Chicago was known for doing television and radio commercials.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you get on the Dick Marx circuit?
Smith: Dick Marx was really great to me and was one of my big accounts. He did a lot to help me, and Dick Reynolds, who owned a company called
James Moody and Smith at Moody’s home in San Diego, October 2010.
Com/Track, was another guy who did good by me. I got to do everything. When I was at work with Sinatra, I was also doing stuff with Nancy Wilson. I didn’t do a lot of Broadway shows. I did a few, but they are so long-running that I didn’t take a lot of those gigs. But people like Seth McFarlane calls me now to do his gigs when he’s in town.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’ve had so many moments and experiences. What are some other highlights?
Smith: Playing with Nat Adderley, because Cannonball was my idol. I did quite a few jazz festivals with Nat, and he also became a mentor. This is kind of a funny story—I said to Nat, “You know what? I’m thinking of quitting Frank. I just want to work with you full-time.” And Nat says, “Are you kidding me? You can’t raise a family on jazz money! No way, not gonna happen.” [laughs] Then he said that his wife would kill me if I did that. I’m still close with Nat’s wife and their family. During the summer we’d take the kids on Florida vacations, and we’d stay over at Nat’s house in Lakeland, Florida. We’d take the kids to Disney and stay at the house and swim in his pool.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was your relationship with Adderley in any way connected with your Nancy Wilson gig?
Smith: Yes. Nancy wanted to do the Chicago Jazz Festival and do a tribute to Cannonball because she had that famous record with him. But she had no music. So I told her, “Don’t worry, Nancy. I’ll take care of it.” I transcribed the arrangements and we did that for the Chicago Jazz Festival––it wasn’t that hard. I figured out the keys, because her voice had changed over the years, so we had to change some of the keys. The sad part of it was that Nat was involved in it, but then he got very sick with diabetes. He ended up losing a leg and he wasn’t able to make the concert. We did the concert anyway, and it was great. I’ve got a great recording of it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Was Joe Zawinul on the gig?
Smith: No, Nancy used her guys. I think Ron Matthews played piano and Roy McCurdy, who was also Cannonball’s drummer. John B. Williams played the bass and Nat sent one of his protégés to sub for him, Longineu Parsons. I think he’s the trumpet teacher at University of Florida, where Nat went to college. I’ve always had a knack for staying friends with people that I work with.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: One of the common threads I see with every great that you’ve worked with is that they tend to be players who really connect with an audience and not just give an intellectual jazz experience.
Smith: That’s totally what it is—a show that brings people in. It’s toe tapping, swinging. I try to run my band that way. I try to make it so that the audience gets involved and I’m not playing over their heads. I want them to be in. If we musicians start playing completely for ourselves, the audience won’t understand it. A lot of the intellectual things we do––you know, we study this music so hard and we want to impress ourselves with our theory knowledge and out rhythmic stuff, which is great when you’re playing music for a group. But a common guy off the street—he wants driving music, to tap his toe. That’s what I’ve tried to do. I learned that from listening to Cannonball—that’s how I’ve tried to play and run my groups.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Moving into a more philosophical bent, we hear jazz players all the time say, “Man that didn’t swing” or “That really swung.” They’re not talking literally about swing music; they’re talking about something else. What is it?
Smith: I think it’s the feeling you get. If it moves you, you feel that pulse and that beat, and the way the drums and the bass are hooking up, the way the chords are weaving in and out. When it’s got that groove and that feeling, you feel it, and it gets inside you. It’s not swing music per se. If you put on a Jimmy Smith organ record, you can hear those guys taking off. It’s hard to keep still listening to it. A lot
Smith pictured with Nancy Sinatra in Budapest during a duel concert featuring her and Frank Sinatra Jr.
of what hurt some of the jazz stuff too, you have to realize back in the 1940s and ’50s people were dancing to jazz. Once we got so advanced that you couldn’t dance to it anymore—that’s when we started losing people. I’m not saying any of this in a negative way, because there’s nothing wrong with art music. I think it’s great, but then you’re not entertaining. A lot of the critics were against us as being entertainers because we “watered down the music.”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: They said the same thing about Louis Armstrong.
Smith: Exactly. If you listen to it, it’s still grooving in the heart. I think you can do that. You can show off your harmonic knowledge and still keep that big, great pulse going. To me, that’s what it’s about. The pulse. You can stand up there and play anything over that stuff if the feel is still going.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Jazz has had so many incarnations and variations over the past century: swing dance music, bebop, fusion, world music––and yet it’s still called jazz. Do you see “jazz” as a catch-all category?
Smith: Yeah, and that’s sort of a bad thing, too. Because people say, Well, I don’t like jazz. Well, okay, what kind of jazz don’t you like? It’s so broad. When you start labeling things… there’s a lot of great music that was swept under the carpet because it had that name “jazz.” And people go, Oh, well, I don’t like jazz. And then you go again: What kind of jazz don’t you like? There’s a lot of different “jazz.”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What about jazz going forward? Do you see it as kind of an “art music,” sort of like classical?
Smith: No. I see what some of the young guys are doing. Especially having a young son that’s a jazz artist—I’ve seen some of that. He appreciates it because he grew up playing some stuff with me. Some of the younger guys, they’re way into the technique and they’re way into harmony. And it’s sad, because I’ll go to New York and see some of these guys play and there are only fifteen people in the club.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Is there a chance that there could be a renaissance of jazz in places where it never really had full exposure? You did gigs all over the world—Europe, China, Malaysia, Japan...
Smith: Well, the Japanese love it––they freak out over it. They treat jazz music like I do with baseball––they know all the players. If there were cards, they would collect jazz cards of musicians. If you go there, they are still way into vinyl and just love jazz music and its history. Parts of Scandinavia are like that. I hate to say it, but the U.S. is probably one of the worst places as far as supporting jazz.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Maybe it’s because the U.S. has a much longer exposure to jazz from its beginnings.
Smith: I think the other places had that too, but they were getting that through the radio. England was getting it. I mean they were listening to all that stuff. Like anything, time moves on. The audiences that like the kind of music that I played are getting older. How do you keep the kids liking it? That goes to the fact that we don’t get a lot support from the media. We have WDCB, but we used to have WBEZ. It’s so niched out right now that we’ve lost it. That goes for all over the United States. Public radio is not really supporting jazz like it used to. The advertisers aren’t getting as much money out of it. Everything revolves around money. We don’t generate enough record sales, so that’s part of it. I do think that if we had more media support the public would be exposed to it and actually like it. I’ve had people come up to me after my shows and tell me, “Oh, we didn’t think we were going to like this that much, but man, it was really cool”—because they are not exposed to it. What you don’t know, you don’t know.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are you saying that people have heard something that was called “jazz” and didn’t like it?
Smith: That’s some of it. But at the opposite end of that, artists aren’t making any money with it. Our material is very accessible. Go to YouTube. Go to Spotify. It’s all there. The sad part is that we’re not generating much income from it. You don’t have to look around for Mike Smith records––go to YouTube, it’s there.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Aside from Mike Smith, who is doing it really well today and doing a good job at keeping the jazz canon alive?
Smith: There are guys that I really love—Vincent Herring, Chris Potter. They’re true jazz artists and great musicians. Conrad Herwig is a great trombonist. There’s tons of it out there. It’s just that the media doesn’t recognize it. You can find anything you want online. With social media we are able to get our works out. I’ve advertised my stuff on social media, and I get the reports. Now, my records are doing better than they ever did except it’s not generating any money. In the old days, it would have. I still do pretty well and sell my CDs at the clubs and at my concerts. But it’s hard to get a record label behind you because they want a return on their investment. The orchestra project I did: if I did that record as a commercial recording and hired musicians—the whole thing, the studio, and the duplication—that would have been a $50,000 record at least. I did it here at the house. But if I had hired musicians and all that it wouldn’t have taken me eight months. It probably would’ve taken three days.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What do you tell the youths who want to get involved with jazz?
Smith: To do it. Also to be as versatile as you can. Learn how to write—there’s still a need for that. People and singers all need arrangements and they need charts. Teach. You need to be very versatile now. You can’t just say, “Oh, I want to be a jazz musician.” I don’t see anybody doing that anymore. A lot of the names I mentioned to you, they’re all teaching college and teaching kids. Music is such a great thing, but it’s getting harder to get students. You don’t just pick it up and then in an hour you’re doing it; it’s not like learning a video game. You have to put a lot of work in it. My wife is a piano teacher and there are still kids coming in taking piano lessons.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s good news.
Smith: I hope what ends up happening is that they get exposed to it enough to like being musicians and being exposed to that culture.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Close Enough for Love is one of the rewarding achievements of your career, but what other music projects do you think about?
Smith: Well, I have an incredible band: Jeff Hamann, Mike Schlick and Jordan Baskin, who is really my music director, because he takes care of all of the semantics and makes sure everybody’s there. And if someone can’t make it, he gets subs. He really takes a lot of the pressure off and makes the gigs super-fun for me. He’s like my right hand. I wish we could do some touring and travel and play clubs and festivals. There, again, the cost of doing that is so expensive. Travel, hotels—it’s really hard to put a tour together. I’m not in the position where I can stay on a friend’s floor anymore. That’s what the young guys do. They load up a band and away they go and do a circuit. I need a hotel and a good meal. I guess I’m high-maintenance. I can’t sleep on a floor and don’t want to double-up guys in rooms. That’s what keeps me from doing that.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: That’s got to be one of the great joys—working thirty-six years at Andy’s with basically the same group week after week, developing ideas and synergies.