How an obsession with the gear that helped Stuff Smith achieve his distinctive sound brought me closer to a musical idol, 50 years after his death
By David Schulman
There are a lot of stories about jazz violinist Hezekiah Leroy Gordon “Stuff” Smith. Some of the craziest are stories he told on himself. Like the night he was driven through New York by blind jazz pianist Art Tatum. Or the time he fell asleep on the subway coming home from a gig, and someone swiped his “Stradivari.”
Stuff loved a good story. He loved women. He loved whiskey. He loved Jesus. But above all, he loved music. “Music starts where words leave off,” Stuff said. “And who tries to talk words about it, is missing the whole point.”
That’s from a rollicking short memoir Stuff started dictating late in his life. It appears in the 2002 edition of Pure at Heart, a collection edited by the leading expert on Stuff Smith, Anthony Barnett.
There’s an argument to be made that Stuff was—and remains—one of the most distinctive voices in jazz. On the violin, or any other instrument. “When you hear him play, you can’t sit still—it swings so hard,” said renowned jazz violinist Regina Carter. “He can go toe-to-toe with anyone. Even [with players] on other instruments—he swings the hardest.”
Visiting Carter last fall, I handed her a set of headphones and played a track from Stuff’s late album Black Violin. Soon she was smiling and nodding with appreciation. Then she burst out laughing.
“The violin, he’s making it talk,” she said. “It makes you laugh. But then when he strikes it—unh!—when he does that with the bow, he makes everybody listen. It’s just like he’s the drummer at that point. He grabs your attention—and then he says something.”
It wasn’t just in recordings that Stuff drew in his listeners. Arlene Smith, 15 years younger than he, was Stuff’s fourth wife. At 93, Arlene told me about a show Stuff played in the late 1950s when they lived in Los Angeles. “He was offered a job for one night in San Francisco,” she said. “The people there, they talked all the time. And he was broken-hearted—he was almost in tears. He said to the owner, he said, ‘They’re talking while I’m playing.’ And the owner said, ‘Well, this is San Francisco.’
“And Stuff said, ‘Well, I’ll fix that.’ So he turned the amplifier up as high as it would go. Played so loud they couldn’t talk. Then he brought the [volume] down, down, down, down, down—down to almost a whisper. When he got to that absolute silent place, he started to play. And there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“He could touch your heart so much.”
Stuff pushed jazz forward from the inside, at a time when the music was becoming jazz. He toured with Jelly Roll Morton in the 1920s. In the 1930s, Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz used to go hear Stuff play jazz clubs; they sometimes sat in on piano.
His idol, Louis Armstrong, recorded a song Stuff co-wrote, “It’s Wonderful.” Stuff later recorded with Nat “King” Cole. And you could describe his solo on Ella Fitzgerald’s 1956 recording of “Sophisticated Lady” as a gem of modern jazz sophistication.
But that would take the fun out of it.
And Stuff’s music was always fun.
The first Stuff Smith record I heard was called Swingin’ Stuff. It’s a live album—you can hear the glasses clinking. Stuff’s violin playing is relentlessly inventive, playful, driving. It sounds like a party you’d never want to leave.
Swingin’ Stuff was recorded the year I was born, 1965, and for decades it was my favorite jazz violin album. Listening, I’d sometimes be fooled into thinking Stuff was playing a double-stop—when, in fact, he
was playing a single note on the G string. Was it his violin? His gear? Something else?
As an improvising violinist, I understand the musical possibilities that amplification represents. But Stuff’s powerful tone on Swingin’ Stuff or Black Violin—I couldn’t get close.
Then I began to think of Baroque violinists who research period equipment to get closer to the music they love. The more I played my Stuff Smith LPs, the more obsessed I became with that tone. And the more mysterious it seemed.
From his earliest days on the bandstand, Stuff looked for ways to amplify his violin to make himself heard alongside trumpets and saxes. When he got his hands on an early electric violin in the late ’30s, he—like Charlie Christian on electric guitar—embraced its potential for jazz.
“If it seems unusual for anyone to play an amplified violin in the first place (Smith’s own Guarnerius, it might be added, is valued at $5,000), Smith is one musician who has broken rules from the outset.”
That’s the jacket copy from a 1957 LP Verve titled simply Stuff Smith. Was it possible Stuff played a Guarneri? Could that be the source of his powerful tone?
The cover shows him playing a boldly flamed violin, an M-shaped ebony mute on the bridge. And it shows the pickup Stuff used to amplify his instrument. This pickup was introduced in 1948 by guitarist and inventor Harry DeArmond. Country fiddlers called it a “fiddle bug.” It sits above the violin’s bass bar, picking up vibrations through a dime-sized cork pad.
I found one second-hand, and went to visit David Reuben. He’s a collector of vintage ’50s and ’60s vacuum tube amps—they lurk in his closets, and line the walls of his living room. “The house is a museum of vintage amplifiers!” he said.
“The more I played my Stuff Smith LPs, the more obsessed I became with that tone. And the more mysterious it seemed, the more I wanted to figure out how he did it.”
I attached my DeArmond pickup and mute, positioning it as Stuff did. David pulled over a Fender amp, a National, a Magnatone. There were variations among these tube amps. But the sound through each was qualitatively different than playing acoustically or with contemporary solid-state amplification. My violin’s tone was visceral yet mellow, beefy on the G string.
“Pretty damn close,” David said.
For a day or two, I felt we were close indeed to my personal grail—the rig Stuff used when he made his great records of the ’50s and ’60s. I had the pickup. I had the mute. I spent weeks poring over old photos of Stuff from those years, trying to identify the exact amplifier he used.
Then, one day, Arlene called me unexpectedly. She asked if I had an address for “the grandchildren”—the two children of Stuff’s son by his first wife. It had been almost 50 years; they would now be in their 60s. If I was serious about getting closer to the sound of Stuff Smith, I realized I had to find them.
And I had to find out what became of his favorite violin.
A blizzard was blowing the night in the early ’50s that Arlene and Stuff met. His band was playing in Chicago, where Arlene then had a book business. She heard Stuff on the radio, thought he sounded like an angel, and made it out. “The first time I ever saw him, he went around and kissed every woman in the nightclub,” she said. “They were all with their boyfriends and husbands, and nobody seemed to object.”
At that time, she recalled, Stuff had three violins.
“‘Big Red’ was his favorite—it’s what he played most of the time,” she said. “It was stolen at one point. He went into a great depression for a whole year, until he got it back.”
“Big Red,” she told me, “was made as a copy of a Guarnerius by a man in Michigan.” Arlene continued, “At one time, he had a Stradivarius, given to him by Ann Sothern, the movie star. He was having an affair with her, and she gave him a Stradivarius. And he came home one night in New York, he fell asleep in the subway. When he woke up the violin was gone.”
Did Stuff have not a Guarneri, but a Strad?
It’s not absolutely impossible. Sothern—a glamorous blonde comedienne—starred as a violinist in a 1943 MGM romantic comedy. And Stuff was friendly with several Hollywood stars. Arlene told me she and Stuff enjoyed trading stories of their lives before they got together.
Retelling the Ann Sothern affair, she added this twist with a laugh: “Her husband came home unexpectedly, and Stuff spent the night under the bed.” (There’s no fact-checking that story—though I like to think of it as fodder for a Stuff Smith blues.)
Yet for all of this, it’s clear the violin Stuff loved most was not an old Italian instrument. It was “Big Red.”
Arlene and Stuff weren’t together when he died in 1967, in Europe. Stuff’s companion at the end of his life was a young Danish woman, Eva Løgager, who sent “Big Red” back to Arlene in the US. She, in turn, sent the violin and other effects to Stuff’s son, Jack, who died in the 1980s.
After Arlene’s unexpected call, I got in touch again with Anthony Barnett. He gave me the last address and phone number he had for the family. But the house had been sold, and the old phone number was disconnected.
And the family name is, of course, “Smith.”
Still, I started making calls. One morning, I heard back from a certain John Smith. He wanted to know why I’d called. I told him the story. He said he was, in fact, Stuff Smith’s grandson.
I traveled 400 miles to our rendezvous point: an old train station in Buffalo. We walked to a nearby hotel to talk. In his arms, John clutched a blonde violin case.
John and his sister Cheryl told me they remembered three violins in the house when they were small. One was a banana-yellow electric that John played as a kid. (As a young woman, Cheryl became a serious opera singer.) They said that as kids they’d also been allowed to polish a different violin with Pledge, and to play with an amplifier, which rolled on four wheels and had an eerie “echo” effect.
But they’d never been allowed to touch this instrument.
In the late ’60s, there was a house fire and the place was flooded with water, destroying two violins and much of the family’s memorabilia. But the violin in the blonde case survived.
John set the blonde case—made by Jaeger—on a side table. He unlatched it. The wood of the violin’s sides and back was boldly flamed. I sent Anthony Barnett a series of photographs, and he confirmed that the instrument is, without doubt, “Big Red.”
In a side compartment was Stuff’s last rock of rosin. In another compartment, his DeArmond pickup. The case also held several old strings (steel and aluminum), photos, and Stuff’s obituary in Downbeat. On a vertically torn scrap of paper, there was a lyric fragment in Stuff’s hand:
There were several letters and postcards. “This letter is particularly poignant,” John said. He picked one up to read. “’Jackie’—which is my dad—‘please understand me. I haven’t been working. I have no cash, I have only my music. Now, if you want to get angry with me about not sending you money, feel free.’
“But he was sick at this time. And he wasn’t working.”
Looking inside the violin with a penlight, I could make out the label. It gave the date of 1946, and the name Bernard J. LeBlond—a little-known maker from Battle Creek, Michigan. He made violins for the V.C. Squires company.
I asked John and Cheryl if I could pick up the violin. They agreed. It’s nicked in spots, but the design is elegant. Three strings were intact, and the sound post had fallen, but otherwise the violin was solid. To avoid stressing it, I tuned the strings far below pitch, and slowly played a few bars of one of Stuff’s original compositions, “Only Time Will Tell.”
Stuff had played “Big Red” for about 21 years. After his death in 1967, the violin lay in its case unplayed for the next 50 years. It felt light and responsive in my hands. Its tone seemed rich in personality—and possibility.
The instrument needs the hand of a luthier before it’s ready to be used seriously again. But Cheryl and John say that’s just what they hope will happen; they’d like to hear “Big Red” played by some of the top improvising violinists of today.
“You know,” Cheryl said, “I love classical. But . . . Grampa was jazzy.”
“Oh yeah he was!” John said.
“He was jammin’.”
“Or as my dad would say, ‘Swingin’ man—swingin’!”
“The violin wants to dance,” Cheryl said. “It’s jazzy.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Strings magazine.