Pianist Emery A. Smith Entertains Fans at Hartford Library's Baby Grand Jazz Series | Connecticut Public Radio
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Pianist Emery A. Smith Entertains Fans at Hartford Library's Baby Grand Jazz Series

Apr 20, 2016

Smith will, no doubt, have an absolute lock on sentimentality as he sits down at the baby grand at the Sunday jazz matinee.

Basking in warm, sentimental, adulatory acclaim, pianist Emery Austin Smith -- a high-energy octogenarian and one of the last great patriarchs of Hartford’s first Golden Age of Jazz -- returns once again.

On Sunday, April 24, at 3:00 pm Smith is the headliner for the season grand finale for the Hartford Public Library’s free, celebrated Baby Grand Jazz series.

Smith, who’s plied his craft with great heart, resilience and bebop savvy for nearly seven decades, will, no doubt, have an absolute lock on sentimentality as he sits down at the baby grand at the Sunday jazz matinee in the atrium at the library’s flagship headquarters at 500 Main Street. Information: hplct.org and (860) 695-6300.  

Metheny/Carter Dream Duo

Similarly, guitarist Pat Metheny and virtuoso bassist Ron Carter, with their two upcoming concerts at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, have an equally absolute lock on the best and the brightest duo jazz chamber music you’re likely to hear, either in Connecticut or just about anywhere else for that matter.

The two jazz masters, who have played historic roles in the music, present their dream duo, string summit meetings in back-to-back appearances at Norfolk’s Infinity Hall on Wednesday, April 20, and on Thursday, April 21. 

Pat Metheny (left) and Ron Carter.
Credit Jose Nieto & Alvaro Bojorge / Creative Commons & Infinity Hall

A meeting of the minds of two brilliant string theoreticians exploring infinite possibilities, both concerts hit at 8:00 pm at Infinity Hall, Route 44 in Norfolk. Tickets: $74.00 to $94.00. Box office: (860) 542-5531.  

24-Karat Link to the Golden Age

As an institution with a profound sense of Hartford history, as reflected in its invaluable Hartford History Center, the downtown library is an especially appropriate presenter for Smith, a priceless living link to the city’s first Golden Age of Jazz from about the 1940s, or a bit earlier, to the '60s.      

It was the best of times for jazz, the hippest of halcyon days flourishing citywide from the old State Theater and The Bushnell to jazz clubs, including downtown’s posh Heublein Lounge to the swinging, fabled nightspots and jazz hubs booming in the city’s North End.    

A crowd gathers for the Baby Grand Jazz Series at Hartford Public Library.
Credit Hartford Public Library

As a young, aspiring jazz pianist, Smith was in the middle of the hot house scene in the North End, learning, yearning and burning to master the then new, cutting-edge sounds of bebop.  

A lifetime resident of Hartford, Smith, the youngest of eight children, was born in 1932 at Mt. Sinai Hospital. His parents had migrated North to Hartford in 1919 from Americus, Georgia, he said, to escape Klan country, with its legacy of racism and lynching, and in hopes of  finding a better life and educational opportunities for their children.

Smith, a product of Hartford public schools (Weaver High, class of ’51) took his early classical piano training out into Hartford’s sizzling club scene, immersing himself in the real-life world of live jazz. His jazz learning was rooted in good, old-fashioned on-the-job training in the city’s competitive, groove-rocking conservatory without walls.

His local gurus -- all of whom would be enshrined in a Hartford Jazz Hall of Fame if such a pantheon existed -- were, he said, Harold Holt, an awesome saxophonist; Clyde Wesley Board, a prodigious trumpeter/composer and the music maven/saxophonist Percy Nelson, Sr.  

Although perhaps little noted nor long remembered by the greater jazz world, all three gifted figures reigned in the Golden Age's high renaissance, post-World War II era as giants on the Hartford scene.

Besides having a wealth of knowledge about jazz at his fingertips, Emery A. Smith has encyclopedic memories of Hartford's Golden Age of Jazz.

Unquestionably, these older mentors, along with such then rising figures as Hartford pianist Norman Macklin, were inspirations, even heroes for an insatiable young learner like Smith, who couldn’t devour enough chord progressions and jazz theory teachings. 

While Hartford, Smith’s beloved hometown and home base, has been his prime stomping ground, he has also played throughout the state and region as well as New York City. Somehow, he managed to maintain full-time jobs both as a longtime postal employee and as a seemingly omnipresent professional jazz musician.

Jammed with Giants

Among career highlights and personal delights, Smith has played with a number of jazz titans ranging from Coleman Hawkins and Charlie Shavers to Dizzy Gillespie and Archie Shepp, and even enjoyed a youthful, memorable stint with the once renowned R&B pioneer, Bullmoose Jackson.

Besides having a wealth of knowledge about jazz at his fingertips, the gregarious pianist has encyclopedic memories of Hartford’s Golden Age of Jazz. His recollections range over the rocking renaissance’s flair, drama and creative exuberance as he describes the visceral vibe of vintage clubs or the music’s positive influence on the racial and social attitudes of the era.

Chris Lightcap.
Credit Peter Gannushkin

Citing chapter and verse, he recounts tales of past Hartford heroes and anti-heroes, or, in an oracular manner, spins anecdotes revealing both reality and myth, which, as in all history, cohabit in memory so closely that it’s hard to separate one from the other.

Charge of the Lightcap Brigade  

Unfazed by canon to the left of them and canon to the right of them, Chris Lightcap, an iconoclastic captain of the avant-garde, and his bold brigade, charge onward attacking clichéd conventions from Western Massachusetts to Connecticut in upcoming back-to-back engagements.

Lightcap, a commanding bassist/composer, leads his swashbuckling sonic swat team whose ranks bristle with the armed might of  two high-caliber tenor saxophonists, Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek; the awesome keyboardist Craig Taborn, and the saber-sharp, killer drummer, Gerald Cleaver.

Bigmouth Slovenia.
Credit Courtesy of Carl Testa

Rallying around the band’s mock-heroic banner, Bigmouth -- yes, that’s really its name -- Lightcap and crew celebrate their new, victorious release, Epicenter, on Thursday, April 21, at 7:30 pm at Arts Block Café, 289 Main Street, Greenfield, Massachusetts. Tickets: $15.00, available at jazzshares.org and at the door.

Decamping from Greenfield, the take-no-prisoners group gallops south to New Haven on Friday, April 22, where it will occupy the formidable East Coast creative music bastion, Firehouse 12.

There, Lightcap’s special forces unit unleashes its pyrotechnical arsenal, including on-target melodies, crackling interplay, explosive extemporaneous strategies and uncanny tactical skills at reconnoitering challenging harmonic landscapes. Performances at 8:30 and 10:00 pm.  Tickets: first set, $20.00; second set, $15.00. Information: firehouse12.com and (203) 785-0468.

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