Mike Smith...In His Own Words
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.