Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith
(b. November , 25 1897 – d. April 18, 1973)

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff Smith was an American jazz pianist and one of the fathers of the stride piano style. Smith, who was Black and Jewish, was born as in Goshen, New York. His father, Frank Bertholoff, was Jewish.

By the early 1910s, as a teenager, Smith was playing in New York City and Atlantic City, New Jersey. He served in World War I, where he saw action in France, and played drum with the African-American regimental band led by Tim Brymn. Legend has it that his nickname "The Lion" came from his reported bravery while serving as a heavy artillery gunner. He was a decorated veteran.

Smith returned to New York City after the war, where he worked for decades, often as a soloist, sometimes in bands and was the first musical director of Mamie Smith's Jazz Hounds. During the 1920s, he was a sort of underground figure, who recorded rarely, but gained a reputation as a hot piano player by providing the music for rent parties in the private homes and small clubs of Harlem. Although working in relative obscurity, he was a "musician's musician". Smith was a major influence on Duke Ellington, who later went on to write the tunes Portrait of the Lion and Second Portrait of the Lion in his honor. He also influenced countless others, including George Gershwin, and Artie Shaw.

In the 1940s, his music found appreciation with a wider audience, and he toured North America and Europe through 1971. Throughout his career he led few bands, preferring the life of a solo performer, but he remained very active in music until his death.




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