A Forgotten Master Reclaims His Legacy


Evan Lorenzetti

There is a transcendent moment when the singers give themselves over to the song. They are not just singing, they are also revealing themselves, their deepest pains and most ecstatic dreams. Sometimes for a moment you can see them get lost in the music and become someone else.

Lee Solomon sings at the Jazz Vocal Workshop (all photos by E. Lorenzetti)

This is as you might expect not as effortless as it appears. It works requires practice, practice and more practice. And nearly every Tuesday night for years now, a very unassuming man named Howlett Smith has pushed his students at the World Stage performance and gallery space in Leimert Park to work harder at their craft – and while he isn't cruel, he is very demanding. The workshop is attended by both professional singers and inexperienced performers – he says he often prefers newcomers because they have fewer bad habits – but whatever their expertise, everyone here calls him Mr. Smith.

Even if you don't like jazz, you probably know who Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk were. You probably don't know Mr. Smith, 84 – a composer who has written more songs than he cares to count. After you begin to hear about him and his expansive career, you'll be wondering why you don't know his name too. Mr. Smith's most important legacy might not be found in his resume or songs – but with his students, who work with him either privately or at the workshop. They come to learn from the man who several of them describe as a "master."

"I tell them all the time in class that when I'm out of here, when I'm gone and can't monitor what you're doing, you will do what you want to do," Smith says. "I already know this – but I still want you to learn what I've learned, and learn my legacy and pass it on keep it alive" or else, he warns, "be stuck with inferior music."

Born blind in racially segregated Phoenix, Smith already knew he wanted to be a musician by the time he was 6, and when he first heard the Nat King Cole trio, he knew what kind of musician he was: a jazz pianist. Smith has said that jazz was his salvation, and if hearing classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz intimidated him, it was Cole who gave him the courage to keep playing.

"I already knew that I wanted to be a musician, I knew that always," he tells me in a small apartment in Palms, sitting near the two metal file cabinets that contain the only copies of the hundreds of compositions he has written through the years. They are his archives. He has no idea exactly how many songs he has written because, as he says, "I don't know cause I'm afraid I'd be disappointed." He laughs when he says this – Mr. Smith is not a bitter man.

I first encountered Mr. Smith a few years ago at the World Stage's old space which is across the street from the new one. At the time, The World Stage's very existence was threatened, and everyone there was a bit nervous about whether it would continue – but they survived, and the new space is more spacious and inviting than the old one. What struck me most that night was seeing Smith work with Yolanda, a woman who suffered a stroke, on stage at the workshop. She didn't give up either. She came that night in her wheelchair, still working her craft. Smith heard her familiar voice, and said, "Yolanda, I'm so happy to see you. Sing a song for me."

Yolanda sang "Memories of You" by Eubie Blake, a song Mr. Smith chose for her to work on. He instructed her on what exact line to take a breath – "here and there, everywhere." Smith sang with her, reminding her again and again to breathe – "breathe, breathe breathe" said Yolanda, drilling it into herself. "What's happening is you're not feeling the music – you've got to feel the music," he told her.

"It's not an easy song, Mr. Smith," Yolanda said. He replied, "I know it's not an easy song, but I will show you no mercy." He paused for a few seconds, then added, "You're going to be a good singer, Yolanda." She was visibly tired after her workout with Mr. Smith – she released a great breath, and relaxed when she was finally done.

"You have to evaluate people as a teacher or as a coach, and you know that if you tell them too much, they're going to get discouraged," Smith says. "When they deserve it, you offer them praise." He tells me this in the compact studio he has in his apartment where three keyboards and a Macintosh compete for space, leaving a small gap between them just barely big enough for Mr. Smith to navigate. There are hundreds of cassettes stacked in neat rows along the wall, and a few feet away, are those two file cabinets containing his life's work. Numerous certificates and awards from the likes of former Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden and Mayor James J. Hahn are displayed on the walls. Mr. Smith claims he doesn't care about any of that stuff, that somebody just puts it up there for him. It is a very simple place, not unlike the man himself who tends to be very direct and not always expansive when talking about his life and career.

He offers private lessons here, but you have to audition to get in, and he has turned away a few students over the years. Anyone can come to the Tuesday night workshop at the World Stage, but wherever he teaches, Mr. Smith doesn't want anyone to ever quit, but to persevere and work harder. "The people I work with – none of them work as hard as I want them to work on practicing everyday and paying attention to their craft and I wish they would work harder and get more serious about it because you can't do music without practice and you must practice industriously," Smith says.

Mr. Smith was already playing and practicing piano by the time he was 8 – he'd wanted to start a few years earlier, but his family told him his hands were still too small. He doesn't claim that his blindness had any influence on him becoming a musician, or that his sense of hearing was somehow better developed because of it. During conversation, he maintains steady eye contact with the speaker, so that you might occasionally forget that he is blind.

Music came to him naturally – perhaps because there were several musicians in his family, or because many people in those days had pianos in their homes. He had been hearing little melodies and snippets of song in his mind since as early as 3 or 4. He may have had a wayward year or two when he doubted music was what he wanted, but by the time he was 10, Smith suffered no more reservations, got serious and never let go of it.

"But on the other hand, I had to work at everything else I have in life," Mr. Smith says. His work ethic is what gained him acceptance among peers at the Arizona State School for the Deaf and Blind, who, despite sharing similar challenges, did not accept him immediately. Smith claims he battled institutional racism at that school until he left at the age of 18. While many of the students supported this struggle, he believes others harbored racist thoughts themselves. He kept working anyway. He always got excellent grades. When he won just about every award at a school assembly, he could hear all of the students clapping for him together, a moment that thrilled him. It was not just his success that got him their recognition, it was also their realization that everyone at the school was confronting similar problems, whatever their skin color.

"I used to think my hair was the best hair in school – I was very proud of it – and I used to feel the Mexicans and the whites and Indians hair and I think to myself, well this is nice, but look at my hair, they don't have this," he says, laughing at the memory. "And then I learned that you're not only inferior with your hair but in other ways." When he and about 30 other students went to a Phoenix lunch counter in 1953, Smith was refused service. In a silent sign of solidarity for the kid they all called "Smitty," the other students rose up together and walked out.

"It made me feel very good, it was worth it just to get that feeling," he says now of that memory. Residential segregation in Phoenix was not legislated at that time, but blacks and whites were kept separate by an unofficial refusal to sell blacks homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, something that still persists to this day, according to author Kenneth LaFave. 1953 was the same year racial segregation was outlawed in the Phoenix schools – a full year before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. Smith claims no direct connection between his experience at that lunch counter that day and what transpired shortly thereafter, but he says, "We proved that segregation is a myth, that it doesn't have to be." Today he says what really weighs on his heart is that there is still so much racism left in this country, and for a moment his voice catches. "I believe fervently that all the races can get along and they can mix and go about their business. After all, that's what the Kingdom is going to be like, so we may as well get used to it now."

Let's go where the grass is greener,
for the grass is greener just beyond the hill.
We'll laugh it up at troubles there,
no one bursting bubbles there.
Day after day there'll be thrills after thrills,

So, let's go where the grass is greener,
where the grass is greener and skies are ever blue.
To the east, to the west, either one is the best,
for the grass is greener everywhere there's you.
--The Grass is Greener, composed by Howlett Smith 
and recorded by Nancy Wilson in 1964

When he came to Los Angeles in 1959 after graduating from the University of Arizona, the city seemed for a time like what he calls Heaven on Earth, where different races were living side by side instead of separated by arbitrary rules. He first moved to 47th street and Western. "When we moved into our neighborhood, it was properly integrated – it had Asians and whites and blacks, and everybody was thrown in together. It was just wonderful – but then white flight began, and they moved out to the Valley" he says, and over the years the city lost its appeal for him – gradually becoming more violent and crowded. But Mr. Smith never left his adopted city, raising a family here, always working on his craft, and eventually becoming a mentor to countless singers. He's been teaching for probably more than fifty years.

Smith was turned onto teaching by his instructors at the School for the Deaf and Blind, and they showed him the sacrifice being a good mentor requires. They worked weekends and after regular hours, and his best teachers did not dictate their ideas – they presented arguments, some devoting an entire class period to showing students both their own viewpoint and opposing ideas. They gave their students the power of making their own choices – but also stringently taught them musical theory, and the dedication making music requires. "As soon as theory class was over, I began to break the rules," Mr. Smith says, "but not before I learned them."

(Lto R) Hillard Street, Sandra Renee Williams and Howlett Smith

His students begin to arrive at the World Stage in a steady trickle by 7p.m.and the room is soon filled with more than 20 people on some nights, but as few as four or five on others. You have to get there early most nights – Smith works with each student for about 10 minutes, and it's on a first come, first served basis. People sign up at the door, greetings abound, hugs between comrades and friends. He sits behind a piano on a tiny narrow stage, a sign asking for a $10 donation set before him. The crowd is well-versed. If you forget the exact words to the song you're singing, someone in the room will not unkindly correct you. Good singing, Mr. Smith says, requires an audience, and here you will get an appreciative and knowledgeable one. Some students repeatedly work on a single line as they navigate a song, others get a few comments from Mr. Smith only after they are finished. Class never goes past 10pm. and always ends the same way – everyone sings "Don't let what you don't know disturb what you do know" – a phrase that Smith first heard in Bible study class, and which he set to to music.

He's been teaching the workshop for about 7 years now. Smith gets discouraged sometimes when the class size dwindles down to a handful, thinking someone is trying to tell him something, but then new students start drifting in again, and before he knows it, the room is full again. He is not sure how people find out about him, but they do, and they are deeply appreciative of him. René Fisher-Mims (aka Mama Ne-Ne) has been helping manage the World Stage for twenty years, always hustling to help keep the doors open for a valuable venue in an underserved community, and says they are blessed to have someone as over-qualified as Smith for such a humble position.

Arienne Battiste and Howlett Smith

Arienne Battiste, a singer who trains with Smith and has collaborated with him on several projects, took her first class at the World Stage when he was ill. She found the teacher's approach that night arbitrary, and decided not to return. But something called her back – call it Spirit if you will – and when she got there everyone was saying, "Oh Mr. Smith, we're so glad your back." She saw a little man with grey hair sitting at the piano–and saw that he could figure out what key a song was in, and immediately begin giving the singers specific instructions. And the singers improved as she watched. Only then realizing Smith was blind, she quickly recognized his talents as a teacher.

"And I went up on stage and I sang, 'There Will Never Be Another You'," that was the first song I sang with him, and he said, "Well, where have you been?" She began working with his Harmony Choir, and became part of Smith's inner circle. She doesn't believe in coincidence, and now sees it as her calling to help him regain his legacy – it is what the universe has asked her to do, she says. She is working with the Howlett Smith Legacy Project to digitize and archive his music.

Most of us, no matter how hard-working or committed to our craft we might be, do not attain the legacy of a Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk – that's more a question of fate, largely out of our hands to control. But before his death in 1995, Larry Gales, who played bass for the Thelonious Monk quintet, told the L.A. Times that Smith was serious, sentimental and funny, but never routine – and put him in the same league as Davis and Monk.

So the question still lingers – why isn't this man better known? A few of his songs are still remembered– like "Little Altar Boy," which was recorded by Andy Williams, Glen Campbell and The Carpenters–but his name is not. He served as musical director for "Me and Bessie," a project with blues and gospel singer Linda Hopkins that went to Broadway in 1975 and ran more than a year. He has written several musicals, directed multiple church choirs and written all those songs that clamor for space in his file cabinets. Battiste believes his obscurity may stem from Smith having been burned in the "sighted world" by associates who made promises they did not keep. Maybe it's because, as Smith says, "I'm not a very vociferous person when it comes to blowing my own horn."

He is also a man of deeply felt religious conviction, and as a Seventh-Day Adventist, gave up playing gigs from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset – primetime for any musician. He did this willingly and without reservation, but he also passed up other opportunities to tour Europe or play any number of nightclubs. During his twenty year residency at the now defunct Bob Burns restaurant, he never played once on the Sabbath. If he suffers from regret, it is from never having found a good manager, describing himself as the worst businessman ever.

Smith is someone with ideas of his own, and he can be very stubborn. He rarely compromises. He almost ended a recording session with a singer who wanted to pronounce the word "stream" as "strum"–a confrontation that nearly came to blows. Another musical project ended after he and another composer disagreed over a lyric. Smith doesn't quote the exact line, but says "I'm not going to have one of my melodies subjected to a lyric like that." He wrote a song called "Visit Me" and legendary Jazz singer Nancy Wilson wanted to record it, but she wanted the phrase "frying pan" taken out of the line "I'll take my frying pan and my electric fan." Smith, who painstakingly crafts his lyrics, refused. "That could've been thousands of dollars for me, but I don't care. It's not about money, it's about the principal. I wanted a frying pan in the song, and you either sing it the way I wrote it, or you find something else. And she chose to find something else," he says, again laughing. "Can you imagine a black woman not saying frying pan? I mean, come on," he adds.

These stories might lead you to conclude that Mr. Smith's relative obscurity comes from being a bit too principled for his own good. Maybe so, but Smith also says he considers everything he has written a work in progress, and says any of his songs could be expanded or rewritten at any time. If a singer comes in late in the process wanting to change his lyrics, Smith might consider it if they could propose a better idea. Changing a word or two of the song to make it easier to sing, whether it's written by him or someone else, is not acceptable.

Howlett Smith

Younger people can still incorporate their own ideas into what he is teaching – but they still have to know the rules, and Mr. Smith teaches them with the same demands for discipline and self-sacrifice that he always made of himself. The most important rule: Phrasing is logical, and the sentence structure of a song determines when the singer should take a breath. Many singers simply do not breathe in the right place, and Smith is relentless is requiring that they learn how to do this properly. There is no singer that can't be criticized, or pushed to try just a little harder.

Mr. Smith will continue teaching for as long as he can. The devotion of his students proves that fame is not the only criteria by which we should take the measure of a lifetime. And if you ask him, it's pretty simple what his legacy will be. "My legacy is music, and it always has been and it always will be," he says, "A man who totally devoted himself to music – a man who wrote it, lived it and performed it."

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