Louis Smith was a talented but under-recorded straight-ahead bop trumpeter who led two dates in the '50s before retiring to teach at the University of Michigan and the nearby Ann Arbor Public School system. For most of his career, he remained a teacher, making a brief comeback in the late '70s before returning to education. It wasn't until the mid-'90s that he resumed a recording career in earnest, turning out a series of albums for the Steeplechase label.
A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Smith began playing trumpet as a teenager. He graduated high school with a scholarship to Tennessee State University, where he studied music and became a member of the Tennessee State Collegians. Following his college graduation, Smith did a little graduate work at Tennessee before transferring to the University of Michigan, where he studied with professor Clifford Lillya. At Michigan, he had opportunities to play with traveling musicians, including Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. In January 1954, Smith was drafted into the Army, spending a little over a year and a half in his tour of duty. Once he left the Army in late 1955, he began teaching at the Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, Georgia. While teaching at Booker T. Washington, Smith continued playing bop and hard bop in clubs, and was able to jam with Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Zoot Sims, and Philly Joe Jones, among many others.
In 1956, he made his recording debut as a sideman on Kenny Burrell's Swingin'. A year later, he had the opportunity to lead his own recording session for Tom Wilson's Boston-based Transition label. He assembled a quintet featuring Cannonball Adderley (who performed under the pseudonym Buckshot La Funke), bassist Doug Watkins, drummer Art Taylor, and pianists Duke Jordan and Tommy Flanagan, who alternated on the date. Transition went out of business before the label had the chance to release the record. Blue Note chief Alfred Lion purchased all the Transition masters and signed Smith to an exclusive contract, releasing the session as Here Comes Louis Smith. During 1958, the trumpeter played on two Blue Note sessions -- Kenny Burrell's Blue Lights and Booker Little's Booker Little 4 and Max Roach -- in addition to leading the date that became Smithville. That brief burst of activity turned out to be his only recording dates for 20 years.
Smith moved back to the Ann Arbor, Michigan area, where he taught at the University of Michigan and public schools. Between 1978 and 1979, he cut a pair of albums -- Just Friends and Prancin' -- before returning to teaching. A decade later, Smith resumed his recording career in earnest. After playing on Mickey Tucker's Sweet Lotus Lips in 1989, he signed with Steeplechase and recorded Ballads for Lulu in 1990. He didn't return to the studio for another four years, but he did record two albums -- Silvering and Strike Up the Band -- in 1994. The Very Thought of You appeared in 1995. A year later, Smith recorded I Waited for You, which was followed by There Goes My Heart in 1997. Retired from teaching, Smith suffered a stroke in 2006, and subsequently became a regular presence among audience members at Southeastern Michigan jazz venues but did not return to performing or recording. He died in Ann Arbor in August 2016. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine