Sam Most, Johnny Smith…Gone

Risking the appearance of Rifftides becoming an obituary service, I must note the deaths in the past week of two supreme artists of the bebop era, flutist Sam Most and guitarist Johnny Smith. Each of them blazed trails on his instrument and was a major influence on generations of players who followed him.

Sam Most

Sam MostFrom the notes I wrote for Most’s 1976 Xanadu album Mostly Flute (Out of print, sadly. Copies are being sold for exorbitant prices on the internet):

At 17, he was working with Tommy Dorsey, then with Shep Fields. Jobs with Boyd Raeburn and Don Redman followed and before long, Most became the first bebop flutist. In 1954 he won the Down Beat New Star award. Through the fifties, Sam led several groups, recorded and worked with an astonishing cross-section of musicians, from Teddy Wilson to Paul Bley.

Most was a part of Buddy Rich’s band from 1959 through 1961, on a State Department world tour that included Afghanistan, Nepal, Indonesia, Singapore, India and South America. In the early sixties, the jazz work began tailing off as Most moved into the Los Angeles scene and the pits of Las Vegas and Tahoe. There were occasional gigs with Louis Bellson. He led his own quartet at Shelly’s Manne Hole and traveled with Red Norvo. But the show bands, studio calls, television shows, films and commercial recording sessions dominated.

Then, Sam began to yearn again for self expression.

“I realized that kind of life was a little like hibernating,” he says. “It became clear that I didn’t want to be a professional act backer, although I backed some of the best…Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra. Frank gave me a very expensive handmade wooden flute after I had worked with him.”

Most came out of hibernation on a beautiful spring day in New York City. The setting was RCA’s famous studio B, where Don Schlitten has recorded so many of the great jazzmen.

His sidemen on Mostly Flute were Tal Farlow, Duke Jordan, Sam Jones and Billy Higgins. It’s a highlight of his restored jazz career.

For a thorough obituary of Most, see Elaine Woo’s article in The Los Angeles Times.

Here is Sam in Belgium in 2011 with the Rein De Graaf Trio and trumpeter Ellister Van Der Moen. The video may have been shot through the wrong end of a telescope, but it finds Sam in fine fettle.

Johnny Smith

When Johnny Smith died at 90 on June 11, most of the obituaries and articles about him began with the fact that a rock and roll band had a hit with one of his compositions—as if that validated him. WhatJohnny Smith validated Smith was that he was one of the great guitarists of his time. It was a living testimonial to his importance and influence that decades after he left New York and the active jazz life, young guitaritsts continued to study Smith’s work, hoping to master his technique and gift of invention. Some figured out the technique. Few were able to do more than approximate his creativity. For an obituary, see this New York Times piece.

For an example of his brilliance, listen to “Jaguar” by Smith’s 1952 quartet with Stan Getz, tenor sax; Sanford Gold, piano; Eddie Safranski, bass; and Don Lamond, drums.

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  1. Kenny Harris says

    I remember working with Sam Most at Arthur’s Tavern in New York (late 1950’s). A marvellous musician and a wonderful person, very relaxed and easy-going.

  2. Terence Smith says

    When I heard of their passing I felt a pang of loss connecting through my whole life back to childhood. I was about 8 years old when my father brought home a “Jazztone” records LP, ” Doubles in Jazz”, half of which was Sam Most . Around the same time, Johnny Smith’s “Moonlight in Vermont” came into the house.

    I haven’t kept up with Johnny Smith as well, but I have noticed that he and Sam Most are among those who have grown all their lives INTO the Bebop tradition, instead of thinking they are moving beyond. And the results just got better and deeper through the years. As evidenced by the Xanadu LPs.

    Doug mentioned Sam Most’s State Department Far East tours with Buddy Rich. A big moment for me was acquisition of the Buddy Rich (sextet) recording of that group, “Blues Caravan”. Sam Most fluting the melody to “Caravan” is Buddy Rich’s answer to the Pied Piper.

    God Bless the irreplaceable Most and Smith.

  3. don frese says

    Thanks for the appreciation of Sam Most, a musician I heard back in the 50s but who left little or no impression then, sadly. I was fortunate to find a copy of the Xanadu on eBay for under 8 bucks and have spent the past 24 hours enjoying it immensely. I am awaiting a second reissue (the old Fresh Sound is out of print) of the Bethlehem big band date arranged by Bob Dorough, and CD reissues of his Xanadu dates with Kenny Barron and Lou Levy, two of my favorite piano players. Another great player too little known.

    And let us say a prayer of thanks to Don Schlitten, who kept the flame alive during the dark ages of the 70s (along with Nils Winther in Europe).