"It was the greatest time for jazz and everybody dug the music," Smith says, explaining that those vibrant audiences, who were so moved by the music. "Everybody worked, but when it came to Thursday and, particularly, Friday and Saturday nights that's when everybody started swinging and hit the clubs. Everybody would dress down and go out to the clubs.

"You started playing a song, and everybody knew exactly what the song was. They were totally into it. It felt good to play there because people knew who you were. Even out on the street in the North End people knew you and would come up to you and speak to you because you were a musician and they had heard you play in the club the night before," he says of the energizing link then between audience and performer. It was an existential bond heightened by jazz, a spontaneous music so celebratory, soulful and so much in the moment.

The club scene included not just name artists coming to town from Boston or New York — like Charlie "Bird" Parker ascending at Club Sundown — but also the rich lode of homegrown Hartford players. Among these were a triumvirate of Hartford greats who took young Smith in hand and taught him about improvisation.

His guides to the Promised Land of modern jazz were Harold Holt, a saxophonist who could go toe-to-toe in cutting contests with even such famous heavyweight sax players of the day as the powerhouse Illinois Jacquet; the preternaturally gifted trumpeter/composer Clyde Wesley Board; and saxophonist Percy Nelson Sr., a mythic reed player, music savant, éminence grise on the local scene.

Back then in that pre-Civil Rights Movement era, there was little socializing between blacks and whites in Hartford. Racism was an evil, oppressive force not just in the South, where it was enshrined in the legal system, but also, if less overtly yet still perniciously, in Northern cities as well.

In a major social break with the racism of the day, white jazz fans, even from the then lily-white burbs, made the trip to the North End clubs where they were welcome and could dig some of the best, most happening sounds in town. Some white jazz musicians, such as Hartford's alto saxophonist Jack O'Connor, the blind pianist Dave MacKay and other first-rate players, sat-in with black musicians in the clubs, and much great music was made.

But this was also a time when even the musicians' union in Hartford, as elsewhere across the nation, still maintained separate memberships for white and black or, as African Americans were then called, "colored" musicians

"Jazz binds everybody together," Smith explains of the music's historic role as an antidote to toxic racism in America. You could see that democratic principle exhibited nightly in the North End club scene both on and off the bandstand where lasting bi-racial friendships weren't uncommon.

Besides family, home and jazz, two prime elements in Smith's life have been his industriousness and studiousness, character traits that allowed him to hold down a full-time day job with the post office while somehow managing to sustain a successful, full-scale jazz career. Before retiring from the postal service after 30 years, it wasn't unusual for Smith to play six nights a week without missing a single day's work at the office.

"Music was my main gig. The post office was a secondary job even though I worked at it full-time and never took time off. That's why I wouldn't do any drinking or do any drugs or horsing around. I didn't have time for that foolishness. And besides I had a full life of studying music, studying piano," he says.

Deliberately turning down a number of tempting opportunities over the years to go on the road, Smith chose, instead, to stay closer to home, making a distinctive artistic mark for himself in the region. There were also many significant gigs in Manhattan and elsewhere, which also earned him much respect, particularly among the many celebrated musicians he worked for. All the while, he was constantly honing his style, inspired by such modern keyboard titans as Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.

"I sure don't have any regrets about not going on the road. There wasn't enough money to be made on the road to take care of a family. There never is, unless you were with a group like the Ellington Orchestra, the Basie Band or Guy Lombardo.

"I've played more nights and more piano and more hours professionally than any of those guys who traveled on the road for years, itinerant musicians going from band to band. I've played music the Emery Smith way. I have no regrets," he says quite proudly.

A classic autodidact, he's a voracious reader of history and philosophy, among other varied intellectual interests far afield from music. A word-obsessed, self-taught scholar, he devours dictionaries and thesauruses as a way to expand the writing skills he's used for jazz publications like Coda, a Canadian jazz journal, and the Hartford Jazz Society's old newsletter called The Swinger.

When Borders Books & Music shut down its mega-store in Farmington, Smith, a devout weekend regular, lost access to those well-stocked shelves of non-fiction works that he regularly perused before buying yet another bundle of books to absorb back home in the tranquility of his music room.

Over the years, the perpetual music student has studied with such teachers and pianists as Hartford's Ray Cassarino (a truly magnificent pianist) and the noted jazz pedagogue, John Mehegan.

Even as 80 approaches, Smith sounds less like a patriarch than like that insatiably curious Hartford kid of nearly 70 years ago who, even back then, felt that he was destined to become a jazz piano player. It's his life's calling, he has discovered, with no expiration date because there's always more to learn, more to hear and more to think about in his jazz world without end.

"I don't think about turning 80. I haven't even reached 30 yet," he jokes

"Age doesn't really matter.I don't fight time. People worry about time. Time this, time that. Time takes care of itself.

"As for me, there's never a time when I'm not thinking about music. It goes on all the time in my head. I even dream about jazz when I sleep because that's what life is — one big sphere of music."

EMERY AUSTIN SMITH presents a solo piano concert Sunday, April 29, at 3 p.m. as the season finale for the Hartford Public Library's free "Baby Grand Jazz" series in the library atrium, 500 Main St. Information: http://www.hplct.org and 860-695-6300.