These are deeply unnerving times. Anything that even briefly leaps out with pleasant unpredictability—as opposed to the unexpected worse news—provides a welcome release.
For example, the trombone I hear at the start of Bessie Smith’s “Young Woman’s Blues” always surprises me. A trombone rather than a trumpet taking the lead on a blues side from this period is interesting enough. Yet this particular horn is a real find. The tone is dark yet creamy. The articulation is clean and smooth. Phrases hover close to the same bottom tone, like it’s a hard-fought and now insistent truth.
Seconds later, I always realize (not just remember) that it’s actually a trumpet. Joe Smith fools me every time!
Aside from rhythm, tone is perhaps the most immediately gripping aspect of a musical performance. “Young Woman’s Blues” shows the beauty of Smith’s sound in the sadly neglected lower register of the trumpet. He soon climbs outs of it and gracefully slurs up to a clarion middle register phrase, ending the side’s introduction on a valedictory air.
He answers Bessie Smith’s statements with other firmly centered and gut-shaking descents, including a particularly solid one executed softly but firmly behind the words “settle down.” Joe seconds “I’m as good as any woman in your town” with a muttering declaration. It’s not predictably dirty. There’s no growl or gutbucket inflection. Instead, Smith is subtler and more artful in his carnal imagery. Following “I’m a deep killer of brown,” he tosses off a staccato bugle, proud and dangerous, as a warning to those around him. Smith’s broad final tone comes off like a soprano tuba.
At the time this side was made, Louis Armstrong was introducing higher and faster trumpeting that would become the standard in jazz circles. Smith, meanwhile, is often remembered as the straight(er) foil to young Louis Armstrong’s hot innovations. He could read a written part, provide a brilliant straight lead, and improvise a solo. That versatility, in fact, made him the preferred choice for bandleader Fletcher Henderson when he needed a jazz trumpet soloist. Yet Smith was plenty hot in his own right. He just simmered rather than boiled. Henderson eventually “settled” for Armstrong, and the rest was history.
Of course, trumpeters never stopped playing in the middle and lower registers; Bix Beiderbecke, Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, and Terrell Stafford among others come to mind. Still, the term “jazz trumpet” doesn’t usually inspire mental echoes of pedal points. So, I’m glad to be repeatedly wrong for a few seconds. Maybe it is my recalcitrant ears, or perhaps my subconscious is letting me appreciate Joe Smith over and over again.