Alma Smith: Community Jazz History Interview

Alma Smith, musician and composer, is interviewed for the Graystone International Jazz Museum where she discusses her career and the city of Detroit.

The Countess of Detroit

Alma Smith (Born Mary Alma Foster, Montgomery, Alabama in 1922) was an established singer, composer, record label owner, educator, pianist, and vibraphonist based out of Detroit. Her talents took her on many national and international tours, as well as performances with several revered musicians in a number of well-known jazz and blues clubs. This interview, conducted by Larry Gabriel for the Graystone International Jazz Museum, is a segment of a fourteen-part oral history series that includes many other important musical figures from Detroit. Her love for the city of Detroit, personal philosophy on life, and many talents she possessed made her a treasured figure to be interviewed for this collection. Smith died May 6, 2012.

Have a story or a question about Smith or the work of Detroit Sound Conservancy? Please contact us via email at infoATdetroitsound.org or call direct at 313-444-8242

Transcript of interview conducted with Larry Gabriel (1989):

Transcription by: Jade Amey (2019)

[Smith plays piano while singing “Makin’ Whoopee” by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson] [01:15:05]

Smith:

“Another bride, another tune, 

Another sunny honeymoon, 

Another season, a real good reason, 

For making whoopee.

Another June, a lot of rice, 

The groom is nervous, he answers twice, 

it’s really killing, but he’s so willing, 

for making whoopee.

Picture a little love nest, down where the roses cling,

Picture the same sweet love nest, look what a year can bring.

He’s washing dishes, and baby clothes, 

He’s so ambitious, he cooks and sews, 

And don’t forget, folks,

That’s what you get, folks, 

for making whoopee.”

[Piano playing continues]

Smith: [laughs]

[Continues playing piano and singing “Makin’ Whoopee” by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson] [04:26:1]

Smith: 

“Another year, or maybe less, 

What’s this I hear? Why can’t you guess?

She feels neglected. And he’s suspected, 

Of making whoopee. 

She sits alone, most every night, 

She doesn’t phone, won’t even bite, 

She says he’s busy, but she says, “Is he?”, 

He’s making whoopee.

He doesn’t make much money, only twelve thousand per, 

Some judge who thinks he’s funny,

Says he’ll pay more to her, 

But he says, “Judge, what if I fail?” 

The judge says, “Budge right into jail.” 

You better keep her, I think it’s cheaper, 

Than making whoopee. 

You better keep her, 

I know it’s cheaper, 

Than making whoopee. 

You better keep her, 

I know it’s cheaper, 

Than making whoopee.

Making whoopee.”

Smith: Oh! I have a nice group. I have, uh, Herbie Williams and Lou Barnett and Drew Evans. And, uh, Leonard White and sometimes Will Austin. And we’re doing a lot of things, we have done the auto show, uh, we were up in Ypsi [Ypsilanti, MI] last week. We’re going overseas for six weeks, hopefully. I mean, I know that we’re going and we’ve been playing some jazz festivals and, uh, last week I was so happy cause I had the chance to play with eight pieces and I had the chance to play my vibraharps [vibraphone] and we had a ball. Matter of fact, it was a shame to take the money [laughs], but we needed it, but we’re doing a lot of things and things are good. When I come back from overseas, I hope to make an album with the group. I’ve never had an album with the group, this is what I want to do.

Gabriel: Uh, what kind of what kind of material are you covering with this group?

Smith: Well, now, let’s be honest. If we’re doing a jazz concert and we do the jazz things like “Night in Tunisia”, “Round About”, “I Remember Clifford”, and “Lover Man”, and that kind of thing. But if we’re going to a hotel, we do what the traffic calls for. That might be a business man’s bounce. And that’s things like, uh, “New York, New York”, “Sitting in the Clouds”, “Memories from Cats”, you know, you have to do it all to survive. You just can’t, you know, do what you want to do.

The first group we had, and if you would that group is unbelievable. We had a fellow named George Washington on bass, I played piano. Al Martin not Al Martin. Al Harper played drums. But we had Wooly Wells on trumpet, who became a giant. We had Lucky Thompson on tenor, who became a giant, and Julius Watkins.  Then I realize at that point that I was the company in such people. 

And then the first time I worked at the, uh, Jade Room in California, they had, uh, band on there called Kid Ory, and I had no idea who he was. But I found out later that he was one of the forerunners of you, you know when you’re young, you don’t realize how great some people are. You don’t have at least I didn’t. But the older I get, I realize that there are a lot of giants walking around and it humbles me. 

When I started out, I started out with a trio. Well, I first started out with this band when I was a young girl. I worked for band a short while. And, uh, we just played for shows and that kind of thing. And then within a year, I joined the trio that was already organized, and they renamed it the Two Counts and the Countess, then we went all over. By the time I was 21, we had from New York to San Francisco, and we worked the supper clubs and hotels, that kind of thing. The [inaudible], you know, the kind of jazzy supper clubs. And, uh, that’s the kind of thing we did. We did the standards, but we did some jazz. Because the guitar player, Johnny Fair, he was phenomenal. I remember when we went to, uh, New York to Minton’s; there’s a little jazz club up in New York. And when we first went in, the guitar player just took Johnny’s guitar. And finally, when he would let Johnny play, he wouldn’t let Johnny quit, that’s how good he was. And Curt Wilder was an excellent bass player, so we did a lot of nice things. 

Gabriel: So, when you say you traveled to to New York and to Minton’s, [inaudible] what other clubs, or, you know, things . . .

Smith: We we were only we worked in Philadelphia, we worked in Chicago. But we spent the bulk of our time with the group, we spent in California. We were there for three years. And we worked all over California, from San Francisco down to L.A., Riverside [California], San Diego. We didn’t miss anything ‘cause we did a lot of things there. That’s where we made our first album with the trio many years ago. It was a 78 [vinyl record].

Gabriel: Mm hmm.

Smith: Mm hmm.

Gabriel: And you did some films out there?

Smith: We do what they call some people a long time ago used to have what they call “movie shorts” or “panorams”. That they would use musical acts to do, you know, short thing to film up the show. Then sometimes it’s a forerunner now of your videos really. Cause sometimes they would put them in nightclubs, and you would put money in to see them and we made about four of those. Matter of fact, when we recorded them, we recorded them the same day with Mel Tormé’s group. And with Charles Charles Brown. You know, Charlie Moore. Is that his name? The [inaudible] the Charles Brown, the singer.

Gabriel: Charlie Brown, the R & B [Rhythm and Blues] singer?

Smith: Mm hmm. Cause we worked with him at a place called the Swing Club on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Palmas [California]. We used to alternate with him. And that was those corners there they had Billy Burgs [jazz club in Los Angeles], they had all of the jazz groups. And then, uh, matter of fact, that’s where I first say Erroll Garner. And meeting him was really a surprise. It was hilarious because, uh, he would come in the club every night. Maybe I better shouldn’t say this [laughs]. And he would kid me all the time. He says, “Come on, little lady, hang with me.” I said, “Oh no.” So, finally, one night, I said, “Hey man, what do you do in Hollywood?” He said, “I work across the street.” I said, “What do you do?” He said, “I play the piano.” I said, “Oh my God, you’re Erroll Garner.” And that’s how I met him. He took me across the street and played “Sweet Lorraine” and I’ll never forget that cause whenever I play “Sweet Lorraine”, I think about Erroll Garner, I’ll never forget that. He was a beautiful person. 

Well, the thing that was good for me, I worked through a big agency. We worked for MCA [Music Corporation of America], and whenever we when we went to California, a job was waiting for us. We would we never did one-nighters, I had in fact, now, you know, in Detroit, occasionally I do them, but on the road, we always had two to four to twelve weeks bookings because we worked in clubs like the Trocadero and we worked the Stardust Room in Hollywood out to Billy Burgs, we worked the Radio Room. So, all all up and down Sunset Boulevard, we did a lot of things. And, uh, the road was easy for me because the booking agent whenever we got to town, the room was waiting for us. So, we had it was the ice cream circuit, you know [laughs]. Easy. 

I met Scatman [Crothers] in San Francisco many years ago. We worked at the jazz room up in San Francisco on, uh, Geary and Powell [street intersections in San Francisco], and we used to have a ball because we had jam sessions and it was wonderful. Then again, we opened the room in lower California called the Stardust, and we had three groups there, that’s where I met George, Brian and Scatman. There’s a lot of things. And the beautiful thing about Scatman, that as he became bigger and bigger and more fluent when he did “Chico and the Man” [television show], he remained the same and I corresponded Scat until he died. He was an inspiration because when he hit the stage, it was nothing but fire. He played banjo, he was something else. He was a wonderful man.

So, I came home, and I joined Rudy Rutherford’s band — the clarinet player. And [inaudible] was the drummer, Harry Gray played bass, that’s Wardell Gray’s brother. Now, I worked with him for a while and then I started doing the single. And from then, I worked around Detroit for a while and then I went back on the road again. I was on the road from, oh, for about eight years, and then I came back home in ’64. And that’s when I switched over to organ and had a chance to do a lot of different things. I was not in the jazz scene.

Gabriel: Oh.

Smith: I’ve been scolded for that, but I was survivor, so I worked I was at the Statler Hilton [Hotel] for two years. I worked for all of the Hilton chains, now I worked for a lot of the supper clubs. I I was not in the jazz scenes. I worked all over Dearborn, I worked, uh, at Shammerton’s. I worked at Dearborn Inn, but I was not really in the jazz scene. I wanted to be, but finance wouldn’t allow me, you know? So, it’s only recently that I’ve been able to do the things that I really want to do. 

Gabriel: So, what was it like working the scene that you did work?

Smith: Beautiful. It allowed me to learn a lot of standards, it allowed me to, uh, it’s it wasn’t that you couldn’t play jazz, but you couldn’t feature it all night long. You could do some of it, but you couldn’t do all of it, you know? But it was fine, I made a lot of good friends, and I had a chance to do some of the things I wanted to do. I had a chance to do some writing. I had a chance to save money and produce an album. I did a lot of things. 

Yeah, I have a little record company called Valma Music. And, uh, I hope someday to get to the point where I can produce not only me, but other people. That’s why I keep my license. I’ve had my license now since ’83. So, I have a what they call a signature, that’s my label, Valma Music, I do have that. 

Gabriel: Mm hmm.

Smith: And, uh, I have other things, but I really want to do a lot of jazz concerts, this is the reason, now that I’m not doing any single engagements because there’s lots of single engagements, especially for a woman that plays piano. But I like playing with groups. And recently I started, you know, using my vibraharps and I’ve gotten good response from that, so this is what I really want to do. 

I was told that if I wanted to get my original writings over to put it on an album where perhaps someone else could hear it. And this is the reason for that album, but they arethe couple blues on there and the love songs and there’s things that swing, but they’re played like in the middle of the road thing. You couldn’t call them jazz, but then you couldn’t they’re not jazz, you know? It’s just happy music, that’s all. 

Oh, the title song, from this album is called “Dreamin’”. In essence, it says, “You can have anything you want. Do you anything you want. If you just keep on dreaming [laughs]. Dreaming.” 

[Plays piano and sings “Dreamin’”] [15:39:1]

Smith: 

“Dreaming. 

A lot can be said for just dreaming, 

A world without dreams is a sky without a rainbow,

[Inaudible]

So, try dreaming, 

Everything’s better just dreaming, 

You can go to heaven without leaving home,

See Paris, even Rome, 

Sometimes we want the things that seem impossible,

But dreams can make them happen, in your heart, 

So, start dreaming,

Save a little of time for dreaming,

There may be clouds but inside you’re feeling sunny, 

Rich and not have money.” 

[Piano interlude]

Smith: [18:04:2]

“Sometimes we long for things that seem impossible (laughs), 

Dreams can make them happen in your heart, 

So, start dreaming [laughs], 

Save a little time for dreaming,

There may be clouds but inside you’re feeling sunny, 

Rich and not have money, 

Whatever you long for and all that you hope for can be yours, 

Try dreaming.”

A long time ago, I was I was told that my hands were too small. But I . . . I can stretch. 

[Plays piano]

Smith: [plays piano] Those hands can do a lot. Things like boogie-woogies.

[plays piano] Go hands [laughs]! 

Smith: So [inaudible] the hands the size has nothing to do with it, I just like to play.

Gabriel: Uh huh.

Smith: Art Tatum, I’ve always felt was the greatest pianist that ever lived. Because I saw him play one time and I started to quit playing. The man is you wouldn’t believe the man could play so many keys. But I have found that great people are always nice people because the first job on the road I followed Art Tatum. And I followed a lot of giants, I didn’t know they were giants. I followed Emerson Johnson, did you ever hear of him?

Gabriel: [Inaudible]

Smith: No, Gene Emerson’s father. I worked with Gene Emerson a long time ago. They were, uh, Pete Johnson is the one that wrote the jazz tune called “Carolina Shout”. And, uh, I followed him, I followed [inaudible] Lewis. We followed a lot of good musicians on the road. And, uh, Art Tatum I love Nat King Cole. I like, uh, Erroll Garner. There are so many good pianists, you know, you could never stop. There’s so many of them, but Art Tatum, as far as I’m concerned, is a master. 

He had a way of doing things he could [plays piano]. He was real fast, he could do a lot of things where people he would do on one hand what other people couldn’t do with two. The man was phenomenal. And I’m happy to have seen him in person. 

I like working with the group because it requires discipline and the one thing I like and I appreciate my musician brothers for if they see me going in the wrong direction, they will pull my coat and I appreciate that because the only way you can grow is to learn. And as long as I keep learning, I’m happy. You know, because, let me tell you something. Doing a single, you can start a song and switch the tempo, play the wrong changes, but it requires discipline to play. With the group and that’s what I really like, playing with a group. Making two different things. We do things that I’d never dreamed of doing when I was a single, you know, because a single basically, a single, I get a chance to entertain and I would just rather play, you know.

I’ve had about eight tunes recorded. Kim Weston did one of my songs on that Hastings Street album, “Nobody Had To Tell Me (We Were Through)”. And, uh, Naima [Shamborguer], she sings about three of my songs. I have a number of artists that think that my songs are quality songs and they do them. In fact, when Naima opens, she opens with a song about a Detroit called “Movin’ Along”. In fact, uh, I played it at the retirement party and Mel Roberts asked me he said, “Lady, who’s song is that?” I told him, “Mine.”, and he said, uh, “This is the best song I’ve heard about Detroit.” And, also, and one of Jim Dulzo’s column, he said that, uh, “If the Chamber of Commerce were smart, they would use it for a song.” It’s a nice little song. 

[Plays piano and sings “Movin’ Along (A Song for Detroit)”.] [23:10:4]

“Detroit is my town and I love it. 

In so many ways, I’m so proud of it. 

Detroit’s gonna make it, take it from me. 

‘Cause the best is yet to come, 

A-wait and see,

We’re moving along, Doing great, Looking fine,

A-moving along,

Makin’ it on down the line, 

Reaching so high. Above the stars from up the sky, 

Reaching so high, 

Touch the moon as it floats by, 

Detroit’s a wonderful city, 

We really have class, 

But so many beautiful people, 

Detroit is bound to last. 

Look at the scene, 

Everything is going swell. 

You know what I mean?

Detroit’s alive and doing well, 

A-shoobee-doobee-doobee-doo-pow,

Talking about the “Big D”,

A-shoobee-doobee-doobee-doo-pow,

The great “Motor City”.”

[Piano continues]

“Detroit’s a wonderful city, 

We really have class, 

Oh, so many beautiful people, 

Detroit is bound to last, 

Look at the scene, 

Everything is going swell, 

You know what I mean? 

Detroit’s alive and doing well,

Talking about the “Big D”, 

The great “Motor City”. 

Hey this is my town. 

Love it.”

Smith: [laughs] The first song I ever wrote oh God oh! The first song I really wrote; this is a true song. I wrote Benny Carter had a song called “Malibu”. And I wrote heard it in California when I was a young girl and I wrote the lyrics. Al Hibbler, that used to sing with Duke [Ellington] heard it. He said, “Hey girl, whose song is that?” I said, “I wrote it”. And he said, “I’ll give you fifty bucks for it”. I just put the lyrics to it. I said, “No, if you record it you give me credit, you can have it”. But he said, “No”, so I wouldn’t give it

to him. So, every time he sees, me he kids me about it. When he was here two years ago, he kidded me about this song. It was written that was the first one I remember. And then I wrote a little blues and rerecorded, uh, the Two Counts and the Countess [song] called “I Got A Man”. I can’t even remember that. So, I just like to write.

Well, I went to I went to Cass Tech [high school in Detroit, MI], you know. And we had orchestration and harmony, we had a lot of music. I had two years the first instrument in the girl’s band was bass. We had an all-girls band; I played bass. I had two years of clarinet. And then, uh, I worked with organ for two years because right now, when I played behind Lou Rawls in ’64, I used organ. I don’t even think he knows I played the piano, you know. And then, uh, I played the vibes for a long time. I just . . . I just like to play. 

But when Dakota was in Detroit, I played behind Dakota Staton. That was for about not that long. But, uh, she was here in Detroit before she had her big hit. And she used to I used to work in the place called the Hill Top House up in Pontiac [Michigan]. Telegraph and Dixie [street intersections in Pontiac, MI]. And I worked six nights and she just worked the three nights. Jean DuShon also worked there with us there, too, you know. But I’ve had a chance to do a lot of things. 

I was on the show once with Jimmy Doris; he’s playing vibraharps. And I find that the better musician person is musically the easier they are to work with, because I had to play on this show with Jimmy Doris and I was shaking all over. And he made me so comfortable that I felt kind of proud. It’s not often that I feel good about what I play because I have a tendency to try too hard and I get hyper, I get all nervous. That’s just my nature, you know. 

But music has been good to me. I had the chance to do a lot of things and play with a lot of people. And when I go on the ship, I play with a lot of different I just have a good time playing my music, you know. 

I have seen Lionel Hampton many, many times because he had a pianist named Milton Buckner. And I used to take piano lessons from Milton Buckner. He was one of the people that said my hands were small, but he was an excellent teacher. Last year they had a tribute to Lionel Hampton downtown. And as always, whenever I see somebody playing the vibes, I get all excited so I was standing next to Lionel Hampton with my mouth wide open. The man is wonderful. So, somebody told him, “Hey Ham, that lady plays vibes!” You know what he did? [laughs] He turned around and hand me the sticks! So, he played a lick and I played a lick and he was surprised. So, we did this four or five licks and then I said, “Let me play something I can play.” We got to the piano and he played the vibes, we had a wonderful session. But here’s the funny thing: they made him an honorary judge and you know what he said: “The first thing I’m going to do is sentence this Alma Smith woman to ninety days for coming in and stealing my show.” 

The first set of vibes, I took them to work in California. And they were so raggedy, so the boss made me take them back. He said, “They’re too raggedy to be in a nice club.” So, I went to take them back, the person at the store wouldn’t take them because I was a young kid. And this is when I found out what power could do. My boss went over, he says, “You give this girl a set of new vibes and take the money back.” And so that’s how I started vibes. Vibes are like a keyboard, but it has chimes and it gives a percussive sound, different than piano. 

[plays vibraphone] [29:57:7]

Smith: You can get so many pretty sounds from the vibes and If you wanted to swing with a band, it’s nice.

[plays vibraphone] [30:21:4]

Smith: It’s like you know. 

[plays vibraphone] [30:26:3]

Smith: There’s so many things you can do with the vibes, you know. Especially in front of a band, you know. You can do things it’s just like playing the horn or something. There are a lot of things you can do; lot of effects. I just like . . .

[plays vibraphone] [31:03:2]

Smith: And when you play vibes, you you really if you know the keyboard, then you learn how to work on the drum pad and get your wrist flexible so your hands can . . . do like that you can [inaudible]. 

[plays vibraphone] [31:17:1]

Smith: It’s percussive. It’s I just like it, that’s all [laughs].

My first job on the road was in a place called Chin’s Golden Dragon. And you wouldn’t believe that I followed the greatest pianist in the world, Art Tatum. He had Slam Stewart with him and Tiny Grimes. And I told him, I said, “Mr. Tatum, I don’t see how I can ever sit at the same piano you played.” And I will never forget, he says, “Little girl, do what you do and somebody’s going to like you.” Since then, years later, I had the chance to work with Slam Stewart in Cleveland. I did several gigs with him. And the nice friends benefit from met these people was that Tiny Grimes, a long time ago before he died, tried to get me to come to New York. But the reason I wouldn’t go he wanted me to give up the piano and play vibes exclusively. I would never do that because the piano is my first love. 

[Plays piano and sings “Makin’ Whoopee” by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson] [32:15:5]

“Another bride, another tune, 

Another sunny honeymoon, 

Another season, a real good reason, 

For making whoopee. 

Another June, a lot of rice, 

The groom is nervous, he answers twice, 

It’s really killing, 

And he is so willing, 

For making whoopee.”

end of interview.

Have a story or a question about Smith or the work of Detroit Sound Conservancy? Please contact us via email at infoATdetroitsound.org or call direct at 313-444-8242.

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