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date: 13 November 2019

Smith, Derek (Geoffrey)free

  • Barry Kernfeld

(b London, Aug 17, 1931; d Aug 2016). English pianist. He took up piano at the age of seven and worked professionally from his teenage years as both a bandleader and a sideman. Having played with Kenny Graham (early 1950s) he performed and recorded with John Dankworth’s big band (spring 1954 – September 1955), alongside Allan Ganley in the New Jazz Quintet (from September 1955), and with his own groups (1954–7); he also recorded with Vic Ash (1954, 1956) and Kenny Baker, Jimmy Skidmore, and Bertie King (all 1956) and worked in Baker’s Dozen and as a studio musician for the BBC. After emigrating to the USA (April 1957) he was the leader of a trio (1957) consisting of Connie Kay and Percy Heath. Around 1960 he led a trio that included John Drew and which recorded in 1961 as the British Jazz Trio; in the latter year he appeared alongside Georgie Auld in a jazz group in the television programme ‘Michael Bryan’, and that November he toured South America with Benny Goodman. From 1967 to 1972 Smith was the pianist in the big band that played on ‘The Tonight Show’; when the show moved to Los Angeles in 1972 he remained in New York and performed on other television programmes, notably that of the comedian Dick Cavett.

Smith worked in Goodman’s group again several times (1969, 1971, 1972, 1973), on the last occasion touring Australia. In the 1970s and 1980s he made several albums under his own name, as well as recording with such leaders as Goodman (1971), the singer Marlena Shaw (1972, 1973), Bill Watrous (1975), Buddy DeFranco and Nick Brignola (both 1977), Sal Salvador and Dick Meldonian (both 1978), and Arnett Cobb (1978, 1980). In 1983 he toured Japan with Benny Carter. Through the 1980s and 1990s he worked in a trio with Milt Hinton and Bob Rosengarden and performed as a freelance, in which capacity he recorded in a duo with Dick Hyman (1983, 1998) and as a sideman with Svend Asmussen (1983), Louie Bellson (intermittently from 1986), Flip Phillips (1993), Hinton (1994c1995), and Watrous (2000). He also appeared at international festivals and parties, often in swing-oriented settings with such musicians as Phillips, Ken Peplowski, Johnny Frigo, Bucky Pizzarelli, Hyman, and Roger Kellaway.

Video oral history material in NCH (HCJA).

Selected recordings

As leader

The Man I Love (1978, Prog. 7035)

The Derek Smith Trio Plays Jerome Kern (1980, Prog. 7055)

As sideman

S. Asmussen: June Night (1983, Doctor Jazz FW39150)

M. Hinton: The Trio 1994 (1994, Chi. 322)

B. Watrous: Live at the Half Note (2000, HighNote 4908)


  • E. Cook: “Derek Smith,” JJI, 44/2 (1991), 8
  • E. Berger: Bassically Speaking: an Oral History of George Duvivier (Metuchen, NJ, and London, 1993), 183, 197
Jazz Journal International
L. Feather: The Encyclopedia of Jazz (New York, 1955, rev. and enlarged 2/1960/R1984)
D. R. Connor: BG off the Record: a Bio-discography of Benny Goodman (Fairless Hills, PA, 1958, rev. and enlarged [4]/1988 as Benny Goodman: Listen to his Legacy, addns and corrections, 1996, as Benny Goodman: Wrappin' it up)