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The keys to life

Stewart Oksenhorn
"In jazz, you can't play a song the same way twice. It's a new song every time you play it. That's the great challenge with jazz. It's a gas," says Walt Smith, who will lead the band at tonight's "Stardust" concert at the Wheeler Opera House. (Mark Fox/The Aspen Times)
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On one side there was Walt Smith’s father, no doubt well-meaning. The father would tell the young Walt about his cousin who played in a West Coast band – and the picture that was painted was not a glamorous one.”My whole life, all I heard about was how rotten the music business was,” said Smith. Smith, a product of Lakewood, thus decided to find another line of work; at the University of Colorado, he studied business. And when he settled in Aspen in 1954, Smith did so as a businessman, opening a bowling alley with some partners in the space now occupied by Boogie’s.But Smith’s father was no match for Freddie Fisher. Renowned as a clarinetist, wit and junkman, Fisher also had powers of persuasion that proved irresistible to Smith. When Fisher came around Aspen Lanes to tap Smith’s talents as a pianist, Smith could do little but nod and enter that rotten business of music.”Freddie always made the rounds, every restaurant, drinking coffee at each stop. He’d hit us in the bowling alley, where we had a little café, about 3 every afternoon,” said Smith who, at 78, is tall, charming, busy as can be and a resident of Parachute, where he lives with Carol, his wife of 56 years.One September day in the mid-’50s, as Smith was contemplating bailing out of the bowling alley business, Fisher, on his daily route, told Smith about a gig he had lined up. Fisher had just given his son, King, a cornet, and convinced Charlie Saul, a manager at the Hotel Jerome, to give them a job for the coming winter. Smith had never played with Fisher before, and the trio – clarinet, cornet and piano – was an odd one, even by Fisher’s standards. But Smith was ready to try almost anything, and the combination of jazz music, Aspen in its early days as a world-famous ski resort, and Freddie Fisher enchanted Smith. They played the Jerome for a year, then moved over to the Red Onion. In 1958, Smith was given the chance by Aspen Highlands owner Whip Jones to take over the café at the base of the ski mountain; he turned the upstairs into the Hindquarters, and put in a piano bar. Smith, in defiance of his father’s advice, can only give as his reason the name Freddie Fisher.

“It was Freddie, really. We had such interesting times,” said Smith. “It was a gas playing with him. He was very funny, had this crazy sense of humor.”Smith no longer has Fisher as an excuse; the clarinetist died in 1967 of a heart attack in Aspen. And Smith keeps playing on. When his weekly gig at the Sopris Restaurant near Glenwood Springs came to a stop with the restaurant’s closing last year, he moved over to the Buffalo Valley Inn, where he leads a trio every Tuesday evening. Each fall, Smith is the centerpiece of the Roaring Fork Jazz Party in Snowmass Village. Last year Smith, backed by his regular rhythm section of drummer Chris Goplerud and bassist Mark Gray, released “Free Dancing,” an album of new recordings of such standards as the Gershwins’ “S’Wonderful,” Miles Davis’ “No Greater Love,” Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and his own “I See What I Choose to See.”Tonight, Smith is featured in the “Stardust” concert at the Wheeler Opera House. Presented by the Wheeler as a Wintersköl event, “Stardust” has Smith and vocalist Cathy Markle joined by Gray and Goplerud, as well as trumpeter Dave Poulsen and saxophonist Steve Cole. The 8 p.m. show will include standards from the mid-20th century American songbook: “Lullaby of Birdland,” “Route 66,” “Misty,” “Crazy He Calls Me” and Ellington classics “Satin Doll” and “Take the A Train.”* * * *

As a child, Smith took a decade’s worth of classical piano lessons. As to how he moved into jazz piano, he shrugs and says, “You either can play jazz or you can’t.”Smith could play. During his years at Lakewood High School, he traveled to Denver to play in the South High band. But there were also opportunities at the time for a young fellow to earn money in nightclubs. It was the World War II years, and there were few musicians around.”So at a place, Eddie Ott’s Broadmoor, the bandleader was a lady, Patty – her husband was in the Marines – and it was a bunch of older guys,” said Smith. “I’d go in for three weeks, while going to school every day. Fortunately, I only lived a few blocks away from the club. I’d stay till 12:15, but I’d be falling off the piano bench. I’d beg her, ‘Patty, please, I gotta go home.’ So I’d take a week off, then come back for three more weeks.”Smith made his first visit to Aspen in 1950, to play a six-week run for the opening of Steve Knowlton’s Golden Horn restaurant. But as Freddie Fisher had not yet arrived in Aspen, Smith dutifully headed back to the Front Range to focus on a proper career.By 1961, Smith was entrenched as a pianist and operator of the Hindquarters. But the winter of 1961-62 was not a good snow year. Smith, who has that septuagenarian’s habit of forgetting where he left his songbook five minutes ago but can remember obscure facts from decades ago, recalls that between Dec. 7 and Feb. 13 of that winter, there were just two days of snow, each resulting in an accumulation of 1 inch.”Rumor around the country was, Aspen’s closed,” said Smith. “My business was down 42 percent and I bailed out. I took the family to Denver.”

That set a pattern: Smith, in Denver, would get a call from Fisher, with a promise of more work in Aspen. When the gig ended, Smith would leave the mountains. He and Fisher played a year at the Limelite, but it would be the last year the Limelite operated as a nightclub. He got gigs at the restaurant at the bottom of Little Nell and at the Jerome, and when those ended, he returned to Denver, where he opened the Celebrity Lounge.In 1964, Smith came to Aspen to play at the Tippler. That one stuck. For 12 years, he and his steady drummer Bert Dahlander played at the club. It was the job that finally proved Smith had taken the right course.”It was just magic, that room,” said Smith. “We were at the bottom of Little Nell, people hanging from the ceiling after skiing and every night.”Offseasons, Smith would go to Grand Junction to play a small club owned by his friend, bassist Skip Nelson. Even in Grand Junction, assumed to be as remote an outpost for jazz as one could imagine, Smith found good reason to make music. It was there that he met Art Van Damme, an accordionist. “In my opinion, the only jazz accordionist who ever lived,” said Smith. Van Damme was, of all things, a Grand Junction resident, and, in Smith’s estimation, the best musician he ever played with.One other notable interlude stemmed from a close friendship with novelist Leon Uris, Smith’s skiing and tennis partner. One day around the late ’60s, as Uris was boarding a plane, he called back to Smith to write a song to go with “Topaz,” Uris’ then-current book. Smith had never composed a thing before, but he wrote and recorded a pair of songs. That led to Smith writing the music for a staged version of Uris’ best-known work, “Exodus.” The musical played in Philadelphia, and broke records at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., before opening on Broadway in January 1971. But the musical – renamed “Ari” for the stage – had only 19 New York performances, a failure Smith traces to a negative review by prominent theater critic Clive Barnes.The experience did open some doors. Uris’ manager introduced him to a big California agent, who courted Smith and Dahlander. But when a move to Los Angeles was mentioned, that door closed quickly.

“Bert and I looked at each other,” said Smith. “There was no way. We weren’t moving from Aspen at that time. He might have made us famous. But it’s a decision I never regretted.”* * * *Smith hasn’t forgotten the disappointment of “Ari.” Thirty-five years after its closing on Broadway, he is still at work revising the musical, aiming to make it lighter and give it a broader appeal.Smith’s music-making these days is an interesting mix of old and new. His repertoire is limited largely to songs from 40 or more years ago. (He never warmed to rock ‘n’ roll; rock was forbidden on the jukeboxes in any club he ran. “Freddie used to say that the spaces in between is what makes music. And rock doesn’t have those spaces,” he explained. And while he concedes that newer jazz is creative, he also finds it too busy, and often too loud.)

But that doesn’t mean the learning curve has flat-lined. “One of my frustrations now is I’m too busy,” said Smith, who has had his realtor’s license since 1971 and co-owns the Re/Max realty office in Rifle. “There are a dozen pieces of music on my piano that I just don’t have time to get to.”Smith is a great believer in the jazz credo that, no matter when the tune was written, the music is being played in the moment.”In jazz, you can’t play a song the same way twice,” he said. “It’s a new song every time you play it. That’s the great challenge with jazz. It’s a gas.”I like to think I’m better than ever. I’ve got some arthritis that’s slowing me down. But I’m better as a mature player.”Smith has gotten over the hurdle of his father. The only one left is Carol, his wife. But he has a few years before he has to leap that one.”I told my wife I’d quit playing music when I was 100,” said Smith.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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