Born: Charleston, South Carolina
"He was a great arranger. He had this very distinctive hand. Everybody would know the chart by his hand."
- Ernie Krivda
Before Charlie Parker, there was Willie Smith. Considered to be one of the top three jazz alto saxophonists along with Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, Smith’s clarity and singing directness became a defining sound of the swing era. An academic standout and multi-instrumentalist, Smith started college at age 14. He played in several bands, one of which was led by fellow student and alto sax player Jimmie Lunceford. Following graduation, Smith put his chemistry degree aside and joined Lunceford in his new band, a relationship that would last 13 years. Smith was a superb lead player and soloist for the Harry James, Duke Ellington and Billy May orchestras. He also performed with Jazz at the Philharmonic and worked with Charlie Barnet and Nat King Cole. Smith also wrote and arranged for many stars, his exceptional musicianship spanning modern musical eras.