Jazz pianist, Aspen favorite Walt Smith was dedicated to music right up to the end
August 23, 2018
Legendary jazz pianist Walt Smith's dedication to music lasted right to the very end.
Smith died Saturday in Grand Junction — on a day he was scheduled to perform even though he had suffered a heart attack a month earlier. A longtime fixture in the Roaring Fork Valley, Smith was going to sit in on a couple of songs with the band Swing City Express at a tribute and birthday party thrown in his honor at the Grand Junction Arts Center.
The band was unaware he had passed away until shortly before the performance started at 2 p.m., said Smith's daughter, Leslie Newbury, who attended with friends. The tribute took on special meaning — with a picture of Walt placed on the grand piano in his absence.
"He was always so nice, kind," Newbury said Wednesday. "He just touched so many peoples' lives through who he was and his demeanor."
Smith turned 91 six days before he died. His heart finally gave out, Newbury said.
Smith had a 68-year connection to the Roaring Fork Valley after first coming to Aspen in 1950 to play a six-week run for the opening of Steve Knowlton's Golden Horn restaurant and club.
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He moved to Aspen from Denver in 1954 and became a partner in a bowling alley where the Boogie's building is now located. Bowling didn't work out (legend has it that a teenaged pinsetter didn't show up for work one day, forcing Walk to take on the duty; he soon realized it wasn't for him).
Instead, music was his calling.
He became a staple performer in Aspen's hopping apres-ski and night scene. He played with Freddie Fisher, known for his wit and clarinet playing, at all the hot spots of the day — the Hotel Jerome, Red Onion and the Freddie Fisher Room at Aspen Highlands.
"Freddie Fisher actually got him back in Aspen," Newbury said.
Smith later operated a piano bar and cafe at the base of Aspen Highlands called The Hindquarters. A low snow year in 1961-62 tanked the business and Smith and his wife, Carol, moved their family back to Denver. They returned to the Roaring Fork Valley and lived at a property known as the Wooden Handle up the Fryingpan Valley. The Dallenbach family now owns the property.
In 1964, Smith and drummer Bert Dahlander became the house band at the Tippler at the base of Aspen Mountain.
"We used to hear him all the time," said longtime Aspen-area resident John McBride. He and his wife, Laurie, would end their ski days at the Tippler to hear Walt. They recalled it was a great scene where everybody would get together after a day on the slopes.
"Everybody knew everybody then," McBride said when asked about the flavor of Aspen at the time. "It was like a college campus for adults, or near-adults. In other words, it was fun."
Smith told the late Aspen Times arts and entertainment editor Stewart Oksenhorn in 2006 that the Tippler was his favorite venue to play.
"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."
Newbury recalled that someone with connections in the music industry invited her dad to move to Los Angeles at one point.
"His answer was, 'Fame is fleeting, family is forever,'" she said. He declined the invitation.
Family went beyond blood for Smith. Laurie McBride recalled that Smith was in demand for numerous community functions, such as the Aspen Valley Hospital dinners.
Walt and Carol moved to Battlement Mesa in the late 1970s (and later to Grand Junction) but he maintained his connection to the Roaring Fork Valley music scene. He did Tuesday night shows at the Sopris Restaurant south of Glenwood Springs for years until it closed in 2005. He was as popular with the downvalley crowd as he had been decades before in Aspen.
He is a nominee for the next Aspen Hall of Fame inductions.
Jazz aficionado Nancy Cook Kelly said she started going to see Smith's band at the Sopris every week after she moved to the Roaring Fork Valley.
"He was so free-flowing with his jazz," she said. "There was something about Walt with the way he would move through."
Friends would regularly meet at the Sopris, make new friends and hang out with the band, she said.
"Walt was like my Colorado father back then," Kelly said.
Returning to the Sopris week after week never got stale because Smith and his band had a broad repertoire — and they never repeated how they played familiar songs, Kelly said. In addition, there were always singers and musicians in attendance. Walt would invite them to sit in for a song or two.
That's how bassist Mark Gray met Smith. Shortly after moving to the Roaring Fork Valley, a buddy insisted that Gray come with him to see Smith. They were introduced and Gray told Smith that he had been an upright bass player in his younger days and was getting back into it. Smith invited him up to sit in on a couple of songs. He passed the impromptu audition. Walt invited him to play with the band a few months later, explaining that his regular bassist went on vacation and didn't come back.
Smith's hallmark was that he trusted people to play and he strongly encouraged them to show up with new ideas or variations on songs, according to Gray. Smith was inspiring in that way.
"We affectionately called him Swing Daddy," Gray said. "Everything he played had a jazzy swing to it."
He later added, "He really couldn't play anything ugly."
Gray ended up playing with Smith for 22 years after they met in 1996, much of that time with drummer Chris Goplerud. Their usual routine included the regular gig at Sopris Restaurant on Tuesdays, then wedding receptions, office parties and various gatherings on weekends. They were playing two or three nights per week. After the Sopris closed in 2005, they migrated to Buffalo Valley Inn.
"I tell people that's where I got my master's degree in jazz — from Walt Smith University," Gray said. "He never really taught me anything except through leading."
In addition to the regular gigs at the Glenwood-area restaurants, Smith played each fall at the Roaring Fork Jazz Party at Snowmass Village. He regularly returned to the Roaring Fork Valley for performances, including sold-out shows at The Temporary in Basalt in January and April. Those were among his last big, public performances.
"He loved it. He always loved coming to the Roaring Fork Valley," Newbury said.
In recent years, he played more in Grand Junction at nursing homes and his church. Carol passed away in 2017. Newbury said in January that music kept Smith going.
"He played about a week after his heart attack (in July) at a friend's 100th birthday party," Newbury said Wednesday. "He couldn't say no."
The story is even more amazing, Gray said, because Smith had to borrow an electric wheelchair to maneuver himself into position on the piano bench to play a few songs.
A celebration of his life will be held Sept. 8 at 1 p.m. at Two Rivers Winery and Chateau in Grand Junction. Sometime in the late fall there will be a musical tribute to Smith's life in the Roaring Fork Valley.
Bet on it being a popular performance.
"There's so many people in town that really love that man," Kelly said.
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