"Cladys 'Jabbo' Smith (1908-1991)" by Len Weinstock
Yes, Virginia, there was a Jabbo Smith! Jabbo had a short but exceedingly important recording career in the late
1920's when he became the first trumpeter to seriously challenge Louis Armstrong with a virtuosity which was years ahead of
its time. His work had a direct influence on Roy Eldridge, a pivotal figure in the development of Modern Jazz.
Smith was born in Pembroke, Georgia on Christmas Eve in 1908, the son of a barber and church organist. After the death of
his father when Jabbo was very young 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. After unsuccessfully attempting to leave the institution a number of times, Jabbo finally left for
good 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, the most important of which were Charlie Johnson's Paradise Ten (an all-star line-up that included arranger Benny Carter
on alto) and Duke Ellington, where he substituted for Bubber Miley in a 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. We can only lament
the loss of the marvelous music that this collaboration would have produced! In 1928 Jabbo joined the pit band of the Broadway
show "Keep Shufflin'", playing with Fats Waller (organ), James P. Johnson (piano), and Garvin Bushnell (alto). He recorded
four sides with this group under the name of the Louisiana Sugar Babies.
Jabbo was stranded in Chicago in 1929 while
on the road with "Keep Shufflin'", following the gangland killing of Arnold Rothstein, the financier of the show and also
known as the infamous fixer of the 1919 Chicago Blacksox' World Series. By this time Jabbo was a seasoned creative Jazz musician
and Chicago had plenty of work.
At the request of Mayo Williams of the Brunswick Record Company of Chicago he formed
his Rhythm Aces, a quintet with which he recorded nineteen sides from January to August 1929. In these works Jabbo displays
extraordinary virtuosity and exemplary musicianship on trumpet as well as vocal. Possibly, because the work was too advanced
or sophisticated, the records were not accepted by the public and have, until recently, been largely forgotten. Of much more
importance however, was the fact the these records attracted the attention of Roy Eldridge, who adopted some of Jabbo's technically
explosive, chance-taking speed in the high register and explorative style into his own playing.
According to Roy Eldridge's
own account he lost a 'musical battle' to Jabbo in l930 when "Jabbo Smith caught me one night and turned me every way but
loose... he wore me out before the night was through. He knew a lot of music and changes..." No other trumpeter could claim
to have bested the highly competitive Roy Eldridge in a cut session! Roy, of course, exerted a strong influence on the playing
of young Dizzy Gillespie, one of the founders of Modern Jazz. Gillespie's playing in the period 1938-42 is practically indistinguishable
from Roy's. Thus Jabbo Smith was a key link in the modernization of jazz trumpet style: King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jabbo
Smith, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown.
Toward the end of the 1930's Jabbo gradually withdrew
from serious music activity. He led a group for a while at the 1939 World's Fair in New York and gigged in a Newark, N.J.
club called the Alcazar. It was there that he encouraged a 17 year old Newark singer who sat in at the Alcazar from time to
time to enter a talent show at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She won and got her start. The Singer? The Divine One, Sarah
Vaughn. It seems Jabbo also had an ear for talent.
Soon after, Jabbo moved to Milwaukee where he married, did some
local playing and enjoyed the security of a steady job with a car rental agency. There Jabbo Smith, one of the top four or
five most influential trumpet players of Jazz, languished in quiet oblivion for twenty years. This was indeed a catastrophic
musical loss. Finally, around 1960, Jabbo was rediscovered. He subsequently recorded two albums (his style a mere shadow of
his former heights) and in 1979 was a guest artist in the musical "One Mo' Time" which opened to rave reviews. He also made
appearances at several Jazz festivals, toured Europe and performed at the West End Cafe, the Bottom Line and the Village Vanguard,
all in New York. One of his last public performances was in Berlin in 1986 where he greatly impressed Don Cherry, the avant-garde
In October of 1990 I nominated Savannah native Jabbo Smith to the Coastal Jazz Hall of Fame on the basis
of his importance in Jazz History. He was soon accepted but unfortunatly had already suffered a stroke in May of 1990 and
was living in the Village Nursing Home in New York. Jabbo died in January of 1991 at age 82, but not before learning of his
acceptance to the Hall of Fame from his best friend in his last years, Lorraine Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard. I had
the honor of presenting the Award to Mrs. Gordon who came to Savannah to attend the induction in May, 1991.
The link between Jabbo Smith and the WCJO was lifelong
friend and musical cohort Dave Sletten. It's a story I want to cover in detail later, but suffice it to say that without Dave
we'd probably never have gotten to know Jabbo. It was also Dave who did all the research for the abovementioned WCJO/Jabbo
Dear friend Dave Sletten passed away several days ago. Those who knew him will
greatly miss him.
I'd like to honor his memory by dedicating this CD and
the ACJO Concerts in 2003 to him.
The 2003 ACJO Concert never came together--not enough support
However, I've been doing
a lot of editing and remastering of CJO material these past few years and have created a Follow-up CD Album titled, "Best
of the Early Wolverines CJO_Album 2_1974 - 1982". Dave Sletten is featured on many of the tracks and this album is also
dedicated to his memory. This is the link to my webpage for it: CD013/Best of Early WCJO_Volume 2.
Minneapolis Star/Tribune published Sep 20,
David Julian Sletten, age 45, of Minnetonka, passed away September 18, 2000. He was preceded in death by
his parents, Julian and Olga Sletten. Dave was a musician, composer, teacher and recording artist. He is remembered for his
diverse contributions to jazz, both as a multi-reedman and as a composer. Dave was a former president of the Twin Cities Jazz
Society and has spent the past several years writing an oral history book on Twin Cities jazz. He was a founding member of
the Wolverines Classic Jazz Orchestra, played with several bands including Willie and the Bees, Crossover, the Stud Brothers,
Tropic Zone and Metropolis. The past 10 years have seen him extensively involved in theatre presentations as well as performing
with both major symphonies. For the past 5 years he has performed in the orchestra for the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. He was
a wonderful, devoted and beloved husband, father, and friend his spirit will live on in the hearts of those who knew and loved
him. Dave is survived by his wife, Catharine; his children, David and Kristin; his step-brother, Chip Butterwick; other extended
relatives; and many friends and students. A memorial service will be held Friday, September 22 at 11 am at All Saints Lutheran
Church, 15915 Excelsior Blvd., Minnetonka. Memorials may be sent to the Memorial Fund for the Children of Dave Sletten at
US Bank, 17800 Hwy 7, Minnetonka, MN 55345.