Johnny Smith, a jazz guitarist whose luscious tone, understated versatility and exemplary swinging style brought him a half-century of acclaim and whose composition “Walk, Don’t Run” became a surf-rock hit for the Ventures in the 1960s, died June 11 at his home in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was 90.
The cause was complications from a fall, said his son John Smith III.
Smith was an eminent more than a foundational figure in jazz guitar. But the utter melodic beauty, technical dazzle and remarkable consistency of his playing over the decades brought him countless admirers at the highest levels of his craft. He accompanied Benny Goodman, Stan Getz, Bing Crosby, Beverly Kenney and Hank Jones, among others, during his career.
A hallmark of Smith’s playing was an intricate but seemingly effortless approach to jazz and bossa nova standards.
“He took very logical solos, like someone had written them all out ahead of time, but that was not the case,” said Vincent Pelote, acting director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. “That’s how organized a mind he had, and he had the technical ability to pull it all off. And that’s what floored a lot of musicians, too.”
Smith, who had a Depression-era upbringing first in Alabama and then in Maine, was largely self-taught as a guitarist and worked his way into the top ranks of New York’s music scene. He played on the radio with the NBC studio orchestra, led by conductor Arturo Toscanini, and performed on the concert stage daunting works by Arnold Schoenberg under conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos.
Smith also was immersed in the jazz world, committing himself to a solo career in the early 1950s and becoming a mainstay of the New York nightclub Birdland. His recording breakthrough was the 1952 album “Moonlight in Vermont,” in which he led a quintet that included Getz. The title song, which became one of the best-selling jazz singles of the era, was a virtuosic marriage of exquisite delicacy, dexterity and surprise.
Smith starts by creating the melody as a series of chords instead of single notes, which is hard to pull off. He said he settled on the technique after seeing a musician play a Hammond organ.
“The hardest thing to do on the guitar, is to play a melodic chord progression in smooth, even fashion without leaving space between chords,” he told the Colorado Springs Independent. “Then one day I noticed how an organist managed to keep a tone going between chords by holding down one of the notes of the chord while he pivoted to the next chord. I picked up on that and applied it to chord progressions on the guitar.”
His most enduring composition was the jaunty “Walk, Don’t Run,” recorded by Smith in the mid-1950s and later covered by guitarist Chet Atkins. The Atkins version inspired the Ventures, whose interpretation became a pop hit in the early 1960s.
Smith, who toured in bands led by Count Basie and Stan Kenton, was frequently listed in magazine polls as a favorite jazz guitarist in the 1950s. He abruptly ended his hectic career in New York after the death of his wife during childbirth in 1958.
As the only caregiver for their 4-year-old daughter, he decided to raise her in Colorado Springs, where he had family.
He said he never regretted the decision, telling the Colorado Springs paper, “The greatest view I ever had of New York City was when I emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel on the New Jersey side and watched the Manhattan skyline recede in my rearview mirror.”
He taught guitar, ran a music store and helped design jazz guitars for companies such as Gibson. The royalties from “Walk, Don’t Run” helped him through many lean years.
John Henry Smith II was born June 25, 1922, in Birmingham, Ala., where his father was a foundry worker and played banjo. When the factory closed during the Depression, the Smiths were uprooted and eventually settled in Portland, Maine.
As a child, he did not have money to buy a guitar so he came to an arrangement with pawnshops in Portland to keep instruments in tune in return for getting to play them.
He was accomplished enough at 13 to turn professional in a country band. He made $4 a night — good enough money during the Depression that he quit high school. He was drawn to the improvisational possibilities of jazz after hearing on radio the guitar innovators Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian.
During World War II, he learned the cornet to play in an Army Air Forces band. He eventually became a licensed pilot.
His first marriage, to Gertrude Larrivee, ended in divorce. His second wife, Ann Westerstrom, died in childbirth in 1958. His third wife, Sandy Robbins, died in 2006.
Survivors include two children from the first marriage, John Smith III of Houston and David Smith of Colorado Springs; a daughter from his second marriage, Kim Stewart of Centennial, Colo; a brother; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
To critical praise, Mosaic Records reissued in 2002 many of the sides he recorded for the Roost label in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1998, Smith received the Smithsonian Institution’s James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his contributions to American culture.
Smith once told the jazz critic Leonard Feather that one of his least-heralded contributions to music was trying to teach sophisticated jazz harmonies to teenage rock musicians in Colorado.
“It’s wonderful,” he said, “when a youngster will come up and say, ‘Hey, you remember that seventh chord with the flatted fifth that you showed us last week. Well, we used that in one of our songs.’ “