Louis Smith gets a well-deserved tribute from jazz students
Guitarist Randy Napoleon and drummer Sean Dobbins consider Smith a mentor, and also think it’s the perfect time to recognize their former teacher, who is still recovering from a stroke that hit four years ago.
During his career, Smith, a former artist on the Blue Note label (among his CDs are “Here Comes Louis Smith” and “Smithville”), performed with artists such as Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie. After he retired from performing, he settled in Ann Arbor, where he taught for many years at the University of Michigan and in the Ann Arbor public schools, influencing countless young musicians.
Napoleon credits Dobbins with the idea for the Kerrytown show. “Louis has had such a big impact on both of us,” Napoleon said. “He was my first teacher in jazz. I came to Louis with a beat-up Stratocaster when I was in 9th grade and I had just started playing guitar and I was very excited about it. It was an amazing place to start your education, with someone who really knows what the music is about. As I got older I got to play some gigs with him, I started checking out his records and found out I had stumbled into a situation with a real master. You don’t usually find people like that teaching high school,” Napoleon added.
Dobbins also counts himself fortunate to have been one of Smith’s students.
“He was our mentor and teacher, he was nicknamed my Schoolhouse Pop,” Dobbins said. “Oh man, he was very firm, very knowledgeable, he was very funny — it was like having a dad away from home.
“(Randy) and I have been talking off and on the last 2 years — we’re all doing these gigs and these tours and every time we see each other we say how much we benefited from what Louis taught us, the fact that we are on these tours is because of Louis, Dobbins added.
Both Napoleon and Dobbins have gone on to successful careers. After playing and touring with pop/jazz vocalist Michael BublÃ©, Napoleon now lives in New York City, where he is part of the Freddy Cole Quartet. Dobbins has received many awards and accolades, including the Woody Herman Jazz Award for outstanding musicianship, as well as the Louis Armstrong Scholarship. In 1999, Dobbins was asked to become the director of the Ann Arbor Public Schools Summer Jazz Program, designed to help educate and inspire young artists beginning their quest of learning jazz. In 2000, enrollment in the program more than tripled.
Alan Warren | Ann Arbor News file photo
Louis’ wife, LuLu, says that Smith’s stroke has slowed him but not stopped him. Rehabilitation continues at the University of Michigan Aphasia Program and at Eastern Michigan University, and the couple recently returned from a trip to Paris. Although he still has difficulty speaking, he is able to walk without a cane, and has also been singing and playing his horn.
“I was pleasantly surprised when Sean told us,” LuLu Smith said. “I think it will be just great for Louis. I think he’ll be so happy. This is a surprise for him, I’m not supposed to tell him until it happens. He’s been working on his horn now and he has been doing quite well.”
She said other students besides Dobbins and Napoleon have gone out of their way to acknowledge their former teacher.
“Everywhere we go, if one of his former students is there and they’re one of the musicians, they always talk about him and give him credit for where they are today, starting them out in jazz and being a role model for them,” she explained.
If the concert is a hit, Dobbins said they hope to make it a yearly affair.
“All the stuff Randy and I learned from Louis we’re passing on to our own students and at our own gigs. Our goal is to have this tribute be an annual thing we do and we want to record a Louis Smith album in the future,” he said.
Louis Smith Tribute Project Who: Jazz octet features Randy Napoleon (guitar), Sean Dobbins (percussion), and others TBA. What: Tribute honors longtime Ann Arbor music educator Louis Smith. After retiring from an international performance career, he taught for many years at the University of Michigan and in the Ann Arbor public schools. Where: Kerrytown Concert House, 415 North Fourth Avenue. When: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, January 3. How much: $10-$25 (students, $5). Details: Kerrytown Concert House or 734-769-2999.
Roger LeLievre is a freelance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com.