Smiley Winters


article originally published in Jazz Now Magazine in


Writing this article turned into a chore of indescribable proportions.
Every time I talked to Smiley, Ed Kelly or some other “living”
historical source, I would be deluged with scores of names and dates
covering a decade or two of a history I was totally ignorant of.  What I
ended up doing was analogous to cramming for a final from a book of
history I never opened.  Then I realized it took Smiley and a score of
musicians 40 years to make this history so, how could I be expected to
chronicle it in a couple of weeks.  So I promise to delve deeper in
subsequent articles into a history of Bay Area jazz that seems to be for
the most part a well-kept family secret.  Expanding upon such names as
Robert Porter, Oscar Dennard, Frank Haynes, Phineas Osborne and others.

Pianist Ed Kelly summed it up the best, “He was the godfather of us
all.  When Pharoah Sanders, John Handy and I were getting started he was
our guru.”  If you ask Smiley he was happy playing the music he loved
for the people who could appreciate it, while “rooting the youngsters
on”.  “I wasn’t overly concerned with how popular I was with the general
public. I played for other musicians.”

Born in 1929 in St. Louis, William “Smiley” Winters was given his first
lesson in the importance and variety of rhythms from his mother who was
at one time the most popular cakewalk dancer in town.  Though Smiley
gained valuable knowledge from blues musicians such as Harry Wynn and
Eddie and The Blue Devils.  It was an appearance by Charlie Parker that
really turned him around.

“I heard Bird when he came to town with Jay McShann and it ruined my
mind.  To most people it was scrambled eggs but to me it was beautiful
music.”  It wasn’t till he joined the Navy in 1945(at sixteen!) that he
had his first encounter with  “real musicians”.  “The highlight of my
time in the service was playing in Jerome Richardson’s band St. Marys
Freeflight in Port Chicago.  My career slowed down after that.  I
couldn’t tour anymore because I had ten kids from1945 t0 1955.  Now I
have twenty grandchildren, one great grandchild and two on the way.  I
did spend some time at the Onyx Club in New York and Kelly’s Stable,
played with Billie Holliday in Honolulu but I couldn’t stay there
long.”  So Smiley chose to stay at home developing his musical skills
while nurturing the Bay Area jazz scene.

As trumpeter Robert Porter pointed out  Smiley Winters was in the
vanguard of drummers at the time.  “His concept was as advanced as Kenny
Clarke’s.  His hands were well schooled and faster and more lyrical than
most.”  Smiley advanced concepts did not earn him praise form the rhythm
and blues and commercial gigs he was using to pay his bills.  “They’d
say play rhythm, Smiley, rhythm.  I’d say no I hear the melody.  I lost
a lot of gigs that way.  I developed my concept by listening to “Baby”
Dodd’s and a drummer called Battle Axe who I thought was even further
out than Kenny Clarke.  I learned Gene Krupa’s book and studied Count
Basie and Duke.  I tried to get something out of everybody I heard even
Bob Wills.  I felt that jazz was something you had to breathe and live.
It was not just an intellectual exercise you made up your mind to do.
It was a total commitment.”

Though Smiley Winters couldn’t tour or travel with the top musicians of
the day he ended up playing with them all.  From the late forties the
Bay Area was host to a club scene that would rival most.  Clubs like the
Palladium and the Bar None in Oakland.  The numerous blues clubs in
Richmond where talents such as Jimmy McCracklin and T Bone Walker
played.  And in San Francisco Streets of Paris, Soulville, Bop City The
Jazz Cellar, The Plantation and Jackson’s Nook provided Smiley the
opportunity to play with Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis,
Billy Eckstine, King Pleasure, Ben Webster, Sonny Stitt and of course
Charlie Parker.

“I played with Bird at Bop City along with Al Hibbler.  All you had to
do was follow Bird.  He would never squawk about what you did behind
him.  It was easy because he carried his own drum in his back pocket.  A
lot of people rode off his back. I did.  I sounded the best I ever did
with him.  Bop City was a great place.  Jimbo the owner used to run
around town gathering up all these musicians and actors like Clint
Eastwood to fill his club. Ringo Starr once spent an entire set sitting
next to me watching me play drums at Bop City. Maybe my favorite playing
experiences were with Sonny Stitt.  As great as he was he always made an
attempt to fit in with you instead of you fitting in with him.  It was
like electricity every time you got on the same stage.  He knew all the
music your part and his.”  Ed Kelly recollects playing with Sonny and
Smiley,” If you got lost Sonny would yell, “What’s your name?  Kelly,
that’s cm7!”  Smiley Winters, “It was too bad Sonny Stitt didn’t get the
recognition Bird did it was really a case of two different people
getting the same message at the same time. I also enjoyed my time with
Dinah Washington, it surprised me she picked me up.  She had Joe Zawinul
and Jimmy Rowles in her band at the time.  She had the beautiful, earthy
sound of a gospel singer which many singers like Patti La Belle have
imitated.  She was also was an accomplished cello and organ player.  I
always loved jazz because it was always changing.  Though some people
resisted acknowledging change and players who took off in new directions
I thrived on it.  For instance I had no problem playing with Ornette
Coleman over on Haight Street despite having no time to practice.  He
made perfect sense to me.  I love all forms of art that challenge the
eye or the ear.  There is a group of modern sculptures by the Broadway
Bart stop in Oakland that I feel has changed the entire atmosphere of
the setting.  Music can do the same thing.”

Though I could continue to list the endless associations Smiley made
with great musicians who for the most part sought him out, there is a
whole other side to his career.  In the same mold as Art Blakey he was a
great teacher as well as a promoter of young musicians.  It was Smiley
who kept urging a shy young horn player by the name of John Handy to
exhibit his talents on the stage of places like Bop City.  “I always
thought he was a good player but he always listened and went home and
practiced till he was sure of his abilities.  It was Smiley who
encouraged a young Pharaoh Sanders to take up with John Coltrane even
though Pharaoh had grave doubts about the offer.  At one time he
provided young musicians with a rhythm section to practice their chops
with.  Besides Smiley on drums it would often include musicians like
Jessica Williams on piano.  Besides his unique methods it was the
respect and understanding he afforded younger players that caused him to
be in demand.  One of his more successful students Benny Green explains,
“I met him when I was fourteen at Cazadero.  Though he was seasoned he
was never condescending.  He would also offer you a chance to play with
other veterans.  He had an uncanny knack of nurturing potential.  Any
criticism he offered was constructive, like learning a tune in all
twelve keys instead of one.  Or teaching me to caress every beat.”

“I’m really satisfied with the way things turned out.  My brother once
told me if you’re not the best always be with the best. So I’ve been
with the heaviest of cats.  And I think it allows me to offer students
something that they can’t get out of those books.  I can tell them how
Bird really worked a piece out.  Which I think is far superior to any
chart.  It’s important to keep a continuum with the past otherwise you
end up with just so much empty knowledge.  It’s always been my dream to
create my own jazz school where I could pass this on.”

You already have
William “Smiley” Winters, you already have.