Program : 
Ace of Rhythm: The Story of Jabbo Smith—Trumpeter & Composer

Jabbo Smith. Photo courtesy Red Hot Jazz Archive

Jabbo Smith had a short but important recording career in the late 1920s when he became the first trumpeter to seriously challenge Louis Armstrong with a virtuosity years ahead of its time.


On this week's Riverwalk Jazz, The Jim Cullum Jazz Band revives their favorite Jabbo Smith compositions. And we hear scenes from Jabbo's life in his own words, as told by our special guest Vernel Bagneris.


When Mr. Bagneris developed his international hit revue One Mo' Time, he wrote a part for Jabbo Smith in the road company. Jabbo toured with the show for four years, from 1978 to 1982. On this broadcast, Vernel shares personal insights into Jabbo's life and personality gained from their time working together on the road.


Vernel sings several of Jabbo's compositions: "Absolutely, Positively," "More Rain, More Rest," "Yes, Yes, Yes," and the enchanting "I Took My Little Daughter to the Zoo." Jabbo's original compositions "Must Be Right, Can't Be Wrong" and "Zoo" make their debut here for the first time anywhere.


Vernel Bagneris. Photo by Jamie Karutz.

Jabbo Smith was born in Pembroke, Georgia in 1908, the son of a barber and church organist. After the death of his father he moved, at age four, to Savannah. His mother found it increasingly difficult to care for him and at age six Jabbo was placed into the Jenkins Orphanage Home in Charleston. His mother also found employment in the Home in order to be near to him.


The Jenkins Home placed heavy emphasis on music education and produced a number of important jazzmen who received their first public playing experience while touring with one of several student orchestras. It was in this setting that Jabbo took up trumpet and trombone at the age of eight and began touring the country with a student band at the age of ten. He left the Jenkins home at the age of sixteen and headed North to make his mark on music. He made, and kept, a promise to his mother never to work for less than one hundred dollars a week, a good wage in those days.


Jabbo found employment in a number of top bands, including Charlie Johnson's Paradise Ten, an all-star line-up with Benny Carter on alto, and also with the Duke Ellington Ochestra, where Jabbo substituted for Bubber Miley on the renowned 1927 Okeh recording of "Black and Tan Fantasy." (Jabbo turned down an offer to join the Ellington Orchestra in 1927 because he was offered only $65 per week.)


In 1928 Jabbo joined the pit band of the Broadway show Keep Shufflin', playing with Fats Waller on organ, James P. Johnson on piano, and Garvin Bushnell on alto. He recorded four sides with this group under the name, the Louisiana Sugar Babes.


While on the road with Keep Shufflin' in 1929 Jabbo was stranded in Chicago following the gangland killing of Arnold Rothstein, the financier of the show, also known as the infamous fixer of the 1919 Chicago "Blacksox" World Series. By this time Jabbo was a seasoned  jazz musician and found plenty of work in Chicago.


At the request of Mayo Williams of the Brunswick Record Company, Jabbo formed his quintet the Rhythm Aces and they recorded nineteen sides in Chicago from January to August 1929.


Jabbo once remarked, "The recordings for Brunswick didn't go anywhere." However, since then, they've been reissued several times and today they're considered an important piece of jazz history. And yet, Jabbo Smith has never received the recognition he deserves—as a jazz trumpeter and as a highly original jazz composer.


Jabbo Smith. Photo courtesy

Toward the end of the 1930s Jabbo gradually withdrew from serious music activity. He led a group at the 1939 World's Fair in New York and gigged in a Newark, NJ club called the Alcazar.


Soon after, Jabbo moved to Milwaukee where he married, played locally and enjoyed the security of a steady job with the Avis car rental agency. One of the most influential trumpet players in early 20th century jazz, Jabbo languished in quiet oblivion for 20 years at the car rental company in Milwaukee.


Around 1960 Jabbo was rediscovered and after that point led an active musical life: recording, performing, and composing original music. He said his composing gave him the most satisfaction and he hoped he would be remembered for his original tunes.


Jabbo died in January of 1991 at age 82.



Photo credit for home page teaser image: Jabbo Smith.  Photo courtesy