Jazz pianist and member of the Tonight Shows resident band in New York

If George Shearing was the first British jazz pianist to amplification braving prominence in the US, the musics homeland, it was Derek Smith, who has died aged 85, who arguably achieved “the worlds largest” all-round success there. Already recognised as an completed jazz player in London, having is collaborating with John Dankworth and Kenny Baker, Smith took the submerge in 1957 and soon gained credence in New York as an exciting forte-piano soloist while becoming a versatile if predominantly invisible figure in the non-stop macrocosms of jingle-jangles, popping books, soundtracks and live TV shows.

Although he returned home sometimes to visit and play, there was never any question of him vacating his adopted country, for he remained in demand there right to the end.

Smith was born in Stratford, east London, the second son of Sidney, an Inland Revenue employee, and his wife, Lillian. It was his mother who attended to it that “hes taking” piano lessons. Having reviewed and considered the classical range from the age of seven, he was introduced to jazz by hearing an Art Tatum recording. He recalled receiving his first remunerate packet at the age of 14 when he played for a neighbourhood VE Day party. Perpetrated to a modernist jazz approaching, Smith was a devotee of Oscar Peterson. He took a safe position in assurance while playing at night with the saxophonist Kenny Grahams Afro-Cubists at the Flamingo in Soho, acquiring a Music Maker contest and constructing well considered preserves with other modernists.

After national service in the Royal Air Force( 1949 -5 1 ), he resumed his date/ night employment pattern before altering amply professional with the John Dankworth orchestra in 1954, leaving a year later to form the New Jazz Group, with the drummer Allan Ganley, which recorded for the Nixa label. In 1956, he secured what he called the best gig for a jazz musician with Kenny Bakers Dozen, a rightfully all-star attire whose line, Lets Settle for Music, on the BBC Light Programme, became hugely popular. Despite such recognition, in April 1957 Smith and his new bride, Shirley they met in a jazz organization migrated, employing the trans-Atlantic expedition as their honeymoon.

Forced to sit out six months before being able to join the New York musician uniting, Smith procured make playing forte-piano in the sheet music section of the department store Macys. In a chance encounter at a concert, John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet befriended him and booked him to make a trio preserving with the bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay, issued under Jazz Piano International. Thus propelled, he was called to accompany the singer Mel Torm even before hed joined the union. He eventually worded the British Jazz Trio with fellow expatriates, the bassist John Drew and drummer Kenny Harris, recording in 1961.

That same time the drummer Mousey Alexander get him a plaza with Benny Goodmans orchestra, just as it was due to tour South America. Smith was to work with Goodman a number of eras , not always harmoniously.


In 1962, Smith converged up with the trumpeter Doc Severinsen on a European tour, and when Severinsen landed the plum undertaking of resident bandleader on NBCs Tonight Show in 1967, he immediately recruited Smith for best available enterprise in New York. There followed a heady five-year stage where the pianist played on the indicate for a brilliant display of performers, including Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and the opera adept Marilyn Horne. Responding once to a daunting 5am call to accompany Luciano Pavarotti on NBCs Good Morning America show, Smith had little suggestion what the largest mortal are aiming to sing, perhaps a major aria, exclusively to acquisition it was We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

When Johnny Carson and the Tonight Show endeavoured to California in 1972, Smith bided given, loath to forego his studio communications, and met Dick Cavetts TV show orchestra. He once remembered his initial amaze that the greatest jazz musicians could well be lined up to play dog-food jingles, but it was the harmony obviou in these encounters that conducted him to model a new trio with alternating bassists Milt Hinton and George Duvivier, the latter describing Smiths keyboard mode as instant kindling. The writer Nat Hentoff met his playing as having strength and definiteness of strike, spirited pulsing and organic reasoning. Smith went on to record more than a dozen trio albums.

Once his studio make abated in the 1990 s, Smith started to travel widely, playing jazz cruises and overseas celebrations, always appearing with top mainstream actors. He was a popular participant at the burgeoning number of hotel-based jazz defendants, including Blackpool in 2004, likewise chiding at colleges and registering all-star discussions, often for the Arbors label, including Dick& Derek at the Movies, a 1998 duo book with his fellow pianist Dick Hyman.

Smith is survived by Shirley, and by their daughters, Helen and Valerie, his brother, Douglas, and four grandchildren.

Derek Geoffrey Smith, jazz pianist, born 17 August 1931; died 19 August 2016


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