Iconic Walt Smith, once king of Aspen’s apres ski scene, returning to valley for performance

Walt Smith was a fixture in the apres ski scene at places like the Golden Horn, Red Onion, Hotel Jerome and The Tippler starting in the 1950s. He will perform Sunday in Basalt.
Aspen Times file photo |


What: Winter Jazz Party with Walt Smith

Where: The Temporary, Willits in Basalt

When: Sunday, 4 to 6:30 p.m.

Tickets: $14 in advance, $18 at the door

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Walt Smith — a centerpiece of Aspen’s fun-filled apres-ski scene starting in the 1950s and a fixture in nighttime entertainment more recently in Glenwood Springs — is returning to the valley Sunday for a rare public performance.

The iconic jazz and swing pianist and his band will be featured at a Winter Jazz Party at The Temporary at Willits Town Center in Basalt.

The 90-year-old Smith said he hopes to see some of the folks he’s played for over the decades.

“Yeah, if they’re still alive,” he quipped.

His daughter, Leslie Newbury, said he is being modest. In addition to building a loyal following in venues throughout the Roaring Fork Valley over the decades, Smith and fellow musicians often held more impromptu jazz parties at friends’ houses. So when he makes a public appearance, his fans materialize.

“It’s amazing — the groupies that still come to these,” Newbury said.

Smith’s history in the local music scene began in 1950 when he came up to Aspen from Denver to play a six-week run for the opening of Steve Knowlton’s Golden Horn restaurant and club.

He relocated to Aspen in 1954 and tried to make a go of it with partners at a bowling alley where Boogie’s was located. Instead, music was his calling. The legendary Freddie Fisher, renowned for his clarinet playing and wit, lured him into pursuing music as a career.

Fisher, his son and Smith played as a trio for a year at the Hotel Jerome. Long-term gigs followed at the Red Onion and a piano bar at the base of Aspen Highlands called The Hindquarters. The piano bar was part of a cafe that Smith operated at the ski area. A low snow year in 1961-62 sunk the business and he moved his family back to Denver. It turned out to be a temporary departure. They were back in Basalt after a few years, Newbury recalled. By 1964 he was the house band at the Tippler at the base of Aspen Mountain. He performed with drummer Bert Dahlander.

Smith told the late Aspen Times arts and entertainment editor Stewart Oksenhorn in 2006 that the Tippler was the favorite of all the venues he played.

“It was just magic, that room,” he said in the January 2006 article. “We were at the bottom of Little Nell, people hanging from the ceiling after skiing and every night.”

He and his wife, Carol, moved from Basalt to Grand Junction in the late 1970s, but Smith was always pulled back to the Roaring Fork Valley as a performer.

He had a weekly gig for years at the Sopris Restaurant south of Glenwood Springs. When that closed in 2005, he moved to the nearby Buffalo Valley Inn. He was also a longtime centerpiece each fall when Snowmass Village held a Roaring Fork Jazz Party.

“I never turned down the music,” he said.

With time, the performances have become less frequent, but are still a huge part of his life. He suffered a heart attack two years ago and cannot travel as much. Carol died last summer.

“Music keeps him going,” Newbury said.

Smith still plays three or four times per month at nursing homes and his church in Grand Junction.

“It keeps me out of the bars,” he said.

The audience Sunday night can expect many of the jazz standards that Smith is famous for playing. He never tires of older jazz, he said, because he is always evolving as a player.

“You never play the same way twice,” he said.

Sunday’s performance is with Mark Gray on bass, Chris Goplerud on drums and Kathy Morrow on vocals. Smith is looking forward to it not only because it’s a return to the Roaring Fork Valley but also because it is a fundraiser for a scholarship fund in his grandson Erik’s memory.

Erik Newbury died in June 2001 in his sleep. It was discovered that he had a rare heart issue. He was 15 years old.

Erik took after his grandpa as a talented musician. In his memory, Leslie awards a $1,000 scholarship annually to a Basalt High School student who is going to college. The winner is a student who best describes what music means to their life. They don’t have to be pursuing a degree in music, Leslie said, but music has to be important to them.

Smith, Newbury and some local musicians released a CD in 2003 as a tribute to Erik and to raise funds for scholarships. “The Dance Continues” features jazz standards.

Smith still works on his own music and collaborated with Newbury last year on “Love Is All There Is.” She handles the lyrics.

Newbury said she felt The Temporary would be a great venue for what could be one of her dad’s last public performances. She’s sure some of his longtime fans will be there since he’s always had such a loyal following.

“I had them all fooled, right,” Smith said with a chuckle.


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