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Willie 'The Lion' Smith: Stride piano's uptown Rruler
Originally published on Wed November 23, 2011 7:08 am
The life of stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith was the stuff of legend, but unfortunately, some of that legend seems to have come from Smith's own imagination. For example, Smith always claimed to have been born in 1897, but his WWI draft registration states that he was born 118 years ago, in November 1893.
Like the date of his birth, the origin of his nickname ("The Lion") is also subject to debate; Smith always said that he earned it for his bravery as an artilleryman in WWI. After the war, he returned to Harlem and was soon known as one of the three great Harlem stride-piano players (along with James P. Johnson and Fats Waller). Among the Big Three, many remember Smith as the chairman of that particular board: Duke Ellington idolized "The Lion." Aspiring jazz pianists as diverse as Billy Taylor and Thelonious Monk studied under him. Smith was also a composer, a bon vivant, a student of Judaism and one of those maddening braggarts who could make outrageous claims about his abilities and then proceed to back them up. He was seldom seen without a cigar in his mouth and a derby on his head; he made sure he was noticed, which he usually accomplished by outperforming every other piano player in the room.
When Art Kane published his famous Great Day in Harlem photograph in Esquire magazine in 1958, some wondered where "The Lion" was. Well, Smith showed up for the shoot, but got tired of standing around, so he sat on the stoop of a nearby brownstone while that great photo was taken. Here are five reasons why Willie "The Lion" Smith should have been in that picture.