Donald Smith Credit: Ron Scott photo

Donald Smith, the underrated musical genius, who was adept in playing everything from straight-ahead jazz with Dizzy Gillespie and Jackie McLean to avant-garde out sounds with Archie Shepp, died on April 9, at a nursing home in Riverdale, New York. He was 78.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Yaisa Smith; a cause was not given.

During Smith’s five-decade career, he rarely recorded as a leader, his most memorable album “Luv,” with bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Jack DeJohnette for the Whynot label, is one of the few under his name. While not an industrious leader, he was a much sought after pianist until his health began to deteriorate and suddenly, the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Early in his career upon arriving in New York from his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, he landed a weekly gig in Harlem at Showman’s Café with saxophonist Bill Saxton and drummer Greg Bandy. The three became lifelong friends. Saxton and Smith played in each other’s bands and together in other bands sometimes with Bandy. Smith developed a cult following at Showman’s Café while there he exhibited his incredible singing ability and played his second instrument, the flute.

“Donald had a great voice, no one could sing like him,” said Saxton. “As much as we did together, I wish we had done more.”

Smith went on to play with Art Blakey, who later commented on his great musicianship as a pianist. He was a first call pianist for such musicians as Pharoah Sanders, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Benny Carter, Andrew Cyrille, Carter, the Thad Jones – Mel Lewis Big Band and vocalists Leon Thomas, Gloria Lynne, Tuliva-Donna Cumberbatch, Fontella Bass and Mansur Scott. He can also be heard on recordings by Lester Bowie (“The Great Pretender,” 1981), Oliver Lake (“Prophet,” 1980) and Craig Harris (“Black Bone,” 1983). Smith stated during an interview with this writer, “I never categorize the music, I just love playing it all and as long as the cats call me, I will play.” Smith was one of the few musicians who played primarily straight-ahead jazz but was constantly called upon to play in the avant-garde arena.

Like Nat King Cole, Smith was a great singer and outstanding pianist that shadowed his mesmerizing voice. In Cole’s case his singing overshadowed his great piano playing. Smith’s voice was so intoxicating that waiters and waitresses in various clubs often stopped working to hear him sing. A close friend of Smith’s noted, “When I entertained ladies at home, I would never play Donald’s song ‘Starlight & You’ because once I played it they would want to hear it over and over again, his voice was that beautiful.” He added, “God’s choir just got better.”

Donald Smith was born on Sept. 4, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia. He was the youngest of three boys. His father Lonnie Liston Smith Sr. was a member of the famous gospel group the Harmonizing Four. As a youngster Donald recalled gospel groups like the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrer with a young Sam Cooke, and many other musicians always visiting. His older brother is the funk/jazz keyboardist and composer Lonnie Liston Smith, and brother Ray sang doowop and R&B music. Smith was a piano prodigy under the tutelage of Ondine Moore. After graduating from Armstrong High School, he departed Richmond to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he was enrolled in the music program along with Dee Dee Bridgewater, who was the female vocalist. While attending the college, he and George Duke tied for piano honors at a college jam session.

Early on he played organ and flute with the Tony Zamora Territorial Band. A versatile and adventurous performer, Smith worked with a wide variety of performers as a pianist, singer and/or flutist. Smith joined his brother’s Cosmic Echoes group as a vocalist and flautist intermittently from 1975 through the late 1990s. During his time with the group, he and Lonnie recorded some now notable jazz standards. In the late 1990s and into 2000, he played weekly at St. Nick’s Pub leading a trio (for 4-5 years) when it was at its peak. “I had the pleasure of working with Donald at St. Nick’s Pub, he was a great person, pianist, vocalist and a great person, I loved and respected him,” said producer/promoter Berta Alloway. During 2000, Smith was a fixture in Harlem (his adopted home), where he played small clubs as a leader and as a welcomed addition to other band leaders.

He recorded two albums with the trombonist and composer Dick Griffin: on “Homage to Sun Ra” (2014), he played piano; on “Now Is the Time,” he played flute and sang, and the album has been re-released on Griffin’s independent label, Ruby Records. “He had a natural love for the music and was an excellent musician and friend,” said Griffin.

Smith is survived by his daughter Yaisa Smith, son Tecumseh Smith; and his brothers Ray and Lonnie Liston Smith.

A service will be held in Harlem at Benta’s Funeral Home at a date to be announced.

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21 Comments

  1. Donald Smith was a great person and a wonderful musician. He played at Sistas Place many times over the past few years, One night he did an unforgettable version of “My Funny Valentine” which we all regret wasn’t recorded. He will be missed.

    1. YES! HE is/was & Will b Dearly Missd nda Flesh; but here n SPIRIT 4EVER…😇🙏🏿❤🖤💚

  2. I met Donald Smith in Chicago many years ago through a mutual friend Doris Whalum. Donald and I became fast friends as we had a lot in common, our very close friends, passion for reading and interrogating philosophical and political ideas and the vital of music.
    We played numerous times, the most recent was an offer for our late friend Chuck Smith’s memorial in Chicago.

    Donald had a wonderful spirit, he was extremely kind, humble and too self-effacing. He was a joy to work and collaborate with, he was a consummate composer, pianist and musician. I and a host of others will greatly miss him. However, we have countless splendid memories that will occupy us for the reminder of our journey during this life.

    Respect, Peace and Love!
    Douglas R. Ewart

  3. Amongst the best male jazz singers ever. His piano playing was among the tops also. I always wondered, “Where is going now?” No clues, just brilliance.
    Knew Don since the 60’s. Not long enough
    Extraordinary beautiful man.
    So long pal.

  4. RIP Donald Smith. A voice sent from the heavens & from everything I have learned about him a truly wonderful human being. Thank you for the music Donald Smith

  5. Baba Donald Smith
    Beloved, respected, appreciated
    Flying African flown home
    Paulette Pennington Jones

  6. I first heard Donald when he was working with his brother Lonnie, singing and playing flute on “Expansions”; saw them play it at the Village Gate. Later in the set he played some piano and that’s when I really understood why he was able to sing so incredibly and play all the correct notes on flute. Having the opportunity to work with him years later was a blessing. A great human being…

  7. It was honor and privilege not only to listen to your beautiful artistry on flute, piano, and vocals, but to have actually shared a stage or two with you.
    I still remember as a child watching Soul Train on Saturday, amazed that a “jazz” artist was on the show. As the throngs of Afros and bell-bottoms rhythmically moved to the funk provided by bass, drum and triangle, your delicate, yet powerful chant demanded we expand our minds. As you take your place among the ancestral shoulders upon which we now stand, I promise to continue to understand we all must live in peace together. Love you my beautiful brother.

  8. Donald Smith was a great piano player and singer – but more – he was a great human being who was loved by his people. He will be truly missed.

  9. No words can express how I feel about the loss of this sweet Brother Donald whom I called “My Zawadi”. What a genius he was!
    I watched him do his magic when a line of singers came up to do open mike. They stepped up one by one hummed a few bars to Donald and he got it and it was on -they were singing like birds and with Donald accompanying them as if they had many prior rehearsals.
    I was fortunate to be able to spend time with him and we talked about days of old- Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Rashan Roland Kirk, the 3 Bridgewaters and new days- he sent me to check out one of his favorite new performers – Charenee Wade and I reported back to him with good news.
    When it was discovered that he was just down the road from Onaje and Sandra, they called and wished each other happy birthday- Onaje on the 3rd and Donald on the 4th of September.
    Another great tree in the forest has fallen and another great library is lost. My condolences to his family and loved ones. Rest In Peace – My Zawadi ❤️

  10. Donald Smith was a wonderful friend, vocalist, pianist, and a great person. I will be forever grateful to Tammy Hall and Norris for suggesting that the group Diaspora record with Donald Smith as he was such a tremendous part of that ensemble. And we did record in April of 2019, fortunately before he got sick and before the pandemic! The recording is called Diaspora Meets AfroHORN, Jazz: A Music of the Spirit, Out of Sistas’ Place. Donald plays brilliantly on it! We were also fortunate enough to have booked Donald at Sistas’ Place, with his own great Quartet featuring Frank Lacy, Stanley Banks and Dwanye ” Cook” Broanax in January of 2019 after they performed so beautifully at N AKO’s 2018 Kwanzaa celebration!

  11. Donald was a good friend. I booked him twice to perform @ For My Sweet,which I ran. This venue was founded by Jitu Weusi.. He was the featured performer @ The Annual Kwanzaa Event held @ JHS 258,Brooklyn. I enjoyed his playing with Gloria Lynne,Steve Kroon,Stanley Banks ,Tulivu Donna Cumberbatch & many more. I have photos from those events. As mentioned about his brother “Ray” is still performing with “The Jarmels “who sang “ A Little Bit Of Soap. God Bless.

  12. My daughter bought a brownstone next door to Donald on W 147 St in 2010. I lived there with her, and Donald and I became friends. We frequently had meals at the Texas Star around the corner.
    He was a non-smoking member of the Sugar Hill Secret Cigar Society we formed with several other neighbors.
    It was during those evenings sitting on the stoop, Donald and I discovered we unknowingly spent time together in my hometown of Rochester NY in the 1960’s at the Pythodd Hall jazz club on Clarissa St. Me at the bar and Donald on the stage.
    There are still videos of Donald to be found on YouTube at St Nicks if you seek them out.
    I lost contact with Donald 3 years ago after his stroke, but the need of his passing is heartbreaking.

  13. I met Don in Chambana and he was a delight. He would stop by and have dinner with us and he would say, sista San this is some great food, who taught you how to cook and I would reply I’m a southern girl from South Carolina.

  14. Remembering Donald fondly cause he had a great sense of humor and was just so free and fluid as a musician. We both attended an audition for a play once. I think Mercer Ellington may have hipped us to it. Donald played for me. Don’t remember what I sang. But I do remember the experience of standing next to the piano mesmerized watching and listening to him when he was asked to perform something and he played the most incredible version of Lush Life I ever heard. Just so free and off the cuff and improvised. I stood there with my eyes big like saucers. Who does that for an audition? He was not limited by anything. He was special and will be missed.

  15. What a loss but what a gift Donald gave us through his music and his loving heart. We were neighbors for seven years and his wide smile and bright, deep laugh made the block a so much better place.

  16. I didn’t know him personally but liked ththe music his brother Lonnie and Donald shared with the world thank you you Brothet Donald po

  17. Richmond Jazz Society sounds The Last Note for RVA multi-instrumentalist/vocalist, DONALD SMITH (younger brother of Lonnie Liston Smith) whose extraordinary talent and grace touched so many of us. We are proud to have honored Donald and helped to preserve his legacy in our Virginia Jazz exhibitions. Peace be unto you, Brother 🎶 💕

  18. We all sang in the Armstrong HS Choir Donald was such great musician and vocalist that Mr. Savage would leave him in charge of the choir when Mr. Savage had to leave the room fir any time. He had perfect pitch an could sing all the vocal parts to every sing in eac of the sections from bass to first soprano. Very one knew of his skills and loved admired an respected him for them. Our families lived on North 26th Street. In those days we all knew ourselves by families. We often performed in Gospel concerts in churches in Richmond head lined by the Harmonizing Four. Donald was a child prodigy who always amazed us with his musicianship and phenomenal voice from Elementary through High School. He was ALWAYS kind and humble and NEVER flaunted his abilities. These 78 years now seem like days. How we return again together to create more music and spread more love.

    Myra Brown Class of 1965

  19. I first met Donald years ago when he played for Pepsi Bethel’s jazz dance class. We did a gig together with Benny Russell and then those glorious years at the pub. He loved it! It was always a joy to run into him in the neighborhood. Have missed him and his exuberance, since he first entered the facility. Regret I never got to visit. Rest in beautiful peace.

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