Pianist Smith Says Humor Is the Key : Jazz: He has worked with Ella Fitzgerald and composed. Tonight he will play one of ‘Four Grand Pianos’ in La Mirada.


“To me, piano is fun and games,” said Paul Smith.

Tall, tan and 72 years old, Smith is a master of technique who can play smooth, even lines at quicksilver tempos. But he loves to break things up with silly stuff, like throwing “Pop Goes the Weasel” into the middle of “Have You Met Miss Jones?”

And he is well aware this lighthearted approach doesn’t sit well with everyone, especially critics.

“I know everybody doesn’t appreciate my sense of humor, but I play for the audience, and the listeners seem to go for it,” he said. “I figure one good laugh is worth 1,000 good choruses. And if I get that one laugh, then maybe they’ll listen to the 1,000 choruses.”

He has worn many hats in his 53 years as a working musician. He has composed and arranged, played on the soundtracks of hundreds of films and backed artists from Ella Fitzgerald to Pat Boone on more than 150 albums. And, as a jazzman, he has recorded more than 50 albums of his own.


He will be playing jazz tonight at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts on a program called “Four Grand Pianos” that also will feature Steve Allen, Pete Jolly and Mark Massey.

Actually, Smith said he will play a little bit of everything tonight--not just jazz but some pop, some classics, “stride, Mozart, boogie woogie. . .”

Back in the studios, he recalled, “You had to be equipped to do it all. We were musical whores--we had to sound like everybody else. Someone would say, ‘Give me an Erroll Garner introduction,’ and you did it.

“Now a guy will say, ‘Give me an Elton John intro,’ and I have no idea how he plays,” he added with a laugh.

As one of the most active musicians on the L.A. studio scene, he would find himself accompanying “Dinah Shore in the morning, Ella in the afternoon, (opera singer) Dorothy Kirsten in the evening. But all the writing was good, so you never complained. It was a joy just to go in and listen to the string sections orchestrated by Alfred Newman or Max Steiner.”

He started studying classical music in his native San Diego at age 8; by 19 he was a working professional. In the ‘40s he played with Tommy Dorsey and Les Paul. But he didn’t much like life on the road:

“I was a clean liver, no smoking, no drinking, and I lasted about a month on Dorsey’s bus. I couldn’t stand the smoke and booze in the morning, so I bought a convertible. Louis Bellson, who also lived clean, and I drove from job to job.”

He settled back down in Southern California in 1949, when his ability to emulate George Shearing landed him a contract with Discovery Records. He went on to record for Capitol (Shearing’s own label), Verve, MGM and Warner Bros. Since 1974, he has been with Outstanding Records; his latest release is “The Paul Smith Sampler.”

His versatility was obvious from the beginning. “One of the albums, ‘Liquid Sounds,’ had Bach-like counterpoint. Another (session), a commercial date, had me overdubbing four pianos. It was fun. I never became deadpan serious about jazz, or wanted to sit and play jazz in a club all night. I liked jazz, but not five nights a week. That’s another reason studio work appealed to me.”

To many listeners, Smith is best known for his work with Fitzgerald, with whom he played off-and-on from the mid-'50s until 1990. Their albums together include “Mack the Knife” and her songbook series, collections of Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, the Gershwins and others.

Accompanying the First Lady of Jazz Song was tough, Smith said, but great fun.

“She worked hard. When I first signed up with her, it was for a 46-week tour. Sometimes she’d double-book, doing one concert in the Hague from 6 to 10 p.m., and then she’d hop a flight to Amsterdam to sing at 1 a.m. She loved to sing and she was having a ball.

Speaking of having a ball:

“My father told me when I was young that since I was going to have to work a very long time, choose something I enjoyed and I’d never have to work a day in my life. I’m 72 and I still enjoy playing. When I don’t, I’ll quit and play tennis a few more days a week.”

* Paul Smith, Steve Allen, Pete Jolly and Mark Massey play tonight at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. 8 p.m. $25. (310) 944-9801. Smith also plays Wednesday at Club Cohiva, 144 Pine Ave. (above Mum’s), Long Beach. 8 p.m. $5. (310) 437-7700.