William “Smiley” Winters Interview
Smiley Winters talks with Chris Strachwitz about his life as a jazz drummer.
“I just studied. For awhile, I did to advance my studies. But after a while I did nothing but to learn theory and everything. And then I got a group, a bebop group in 1948 and we made the downbeat Ralph Gleason wrote about us.
And I sort of been a guru and all the cats that came through. That are cats, the most of the modern cats from Handy, Farrow, even Coltrane we have sit down and program and talked about the advancement of music. And I sort of agreed with them on the advancement of music too because I’ve never been stuck in one vein. I’ve moved all the way with it as it progressed and at the same time I was able to play everything I never shunned playing anything.” – Smiley Winters
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Smiley Winters Interview Transcript:
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Chris Strachwitz: Smiley Winter. Is it Winters or Winter?
Smiley Winters: Winters.
Chris Strachwitz: With an S on it.
Smiley Winters: Yes.
Chris Strachwitz: Well, might as well start out. Where were you born?
Smiley Winters: Originally St Louis, Missouri, 1924, the 11th of September. I studied around St Louis. I was raised and I went to vocational school and studied music, and that’s where I picked it up from. Then I played with a few artists that hit town, like Bird and a few others, a member of the big Jay McShann Band, and all through there and so I got enthused. But I always thought it was something for the advanced, you know?
Chris Strachwitz: Did you ever make any records with them while
Smiley Winters: No, I didn’t. I just sit in and made the sets with them and seen the music coming, seen the new music coming. I did, really. And that’s before I went in the service.
Chris Strachwitz: When did you go in the service? What year?
Smiley Winters: ’42, July.
Chris Strachwitz: ’42. And who was sort of your inspiring musicians before then? When you were starting up?
Smiley Winters: Well, those were Pres, Bird, Count Basie, Jay McShann, all of those… Moten.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, is that right?
Smiley Winters: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: Did you get Bennie Moten’s .
Smiley Winters: Yeah, yeah. Bennie Moten and Zutty Singleton, was one of my favorite drummer, Baby Dodds.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right?
Smiley Winters: All those cats.
Chris Strachwitz: You go way back there.
Smiley Winters: Kenny Clark. I mean they’d come up through the line, ?
Chris Strachwitz: Did you ever hear Baby Dodds in person?
Smiley Winters: Yes. Yes. I used to hear him quite often.
Chris Strachwitz: Who’d he play with then?
Smiley Winters: He used to come through St. Louis then. St. Louis was a breathing place for sessions mostly, see? Cats used to come through and make it there. Used to have a good time there. So I’d get a chance to sneak off and see all of them when I was very young.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right?
Smiley Winters: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: You never heard Baby’s brother Johnny Dodds, did you?
Smiley Winters: No, no. I just got a chance to.. I was lucky to get a chance to hear him, man. And then there’s Pres and then Coleman Hawkins, he come out of my home state there. St. Joseph. So I used to make a lot of scenes down there. And then that’s when I got in the service and I wanted to become a musician in the service so I run into ? Junior. I got a chance to study with those cats before I got out I did two years there and I came out. I was working out here in California.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, did you have a chance to choose to play music in the service?
Smiley Winters: In the service, yeah. I played two years out here. See?
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, was it on USO shows?
Smiley Winters: Yeah, it was on the USO shows in, t here’s a place called Port Chicago that I was in the band there and I was on Mare Island’s band for a while.
Chris Strachwitz: Was that a dance band kind of?
Smiley Winters: Yes. It was. Then, they sent us back to Chicago to mix with the band and have a big dance band, which was in ’44. See now I got out in ’45 so I left New York and came out here in ’45.
Chris Strachwitz: So you pretty much spend most of your time in the service-
Smiley Winters: Yeah. Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: Playing music, that’s great. Did you run into any good musicians while you?
Smiley Winters: Well, I run into Willie Smith at the time. He was in there and we used to do a lot of playing with him. Most everybody that was in with him we remember. And he used to work around Chicago. We used to work in Chicago, Men of War program. I worked with the B band, but I was transferred to A band.
Chris Strachwitz: And when you got out of the service in ’40-
Smiley Winters: ’45, yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: You come out-
Smiley Winters: I come out here to study in school. I started out here at Candells Music Conservatory for about three years.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that here in-
Smiley Winters: It was, it’s not anymore. It was in Oakland.
Chris Strachwitz: What was the name?
Smiley Winters: A Candells Music Conservatory.
Chris Strachwitz: Candells Music Conservatory. And did you do other kinds of work on the side or no?
Smiley Winters: I just studied. For awhile, I did to advance my studies. But after a while I did nothing but to learn theory and everything. And then I got a group, a bebop group in 1948 and we made the downbeat Ralph Gleason wrote about us.
Chris Strachwitz: Is that right?
Smiley Winters: That was the first-
Chris Strachwitz: Who was with you at the time? Do you remember?
Smiley Winters: Jesse Hopkins, Dickie Lankford, Guy Guyton on bass and Charlie O’bing, he was there with us. He played the piano and tenor.
Chris Strachwitz: And was it at a club here in town?
Smiley Winters: Yeah, in San Francisco. I think we made it… Ralph Gleason had just made the staff on the ?. Then he made a big splash there hisself, as a writer.
Chris Strachwitz: I see. You didn’t record with any of those? Didn’t make-
Smiley Winters: No. We didn’t make any recording and then the next big splash I got was in ’59 with Judy Tristano, Lenny’s wife. A fellow from The Examiner wrote, Garrison, JC Garrison. I think made a big write up. Then I made records in the-
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, did you make me record with her?
Smiley Winters: With Dinah? Yeah. I made a couple of tracks with Dinah and I don’t know what album is it on? God Made us Human and Love Walked In and I Concentrate on You. Those were the tracks. Now, I don’t know which album-
Chris Strachwitz: Dinah Washington.
Smiley Winters: Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: I see. Did you Judy Tristano play piano too?
Smiley Winters: No. She played tenor.
Chris Strachwitz: Tenor? Oh, is that right? Is she still alive?
Smiley Winters: Yes. She’s in Knolls over there. San Francisco on the other side of San Francisco, Knolls County, Knolls something.
Chris Strachwitz: Does she play modern kind of music?
Smiley Winters: Yeah, she liked to. Warnen Marsh and she stayed in a Getz ? band ’72. She’s a very talented chick, really.
Chris Strachwitz: I had never heard of her.
Smiley Winters: And at the time it’s ironical, but Barbara Dalinson’s (?) first husband was working with this Olie Calamar.(?)
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, is that right?
Smiley Winters: Deanna. Yeah, he’s a Swede. He’s from Oslo, Oslo, Norway.
Chris Strachwitz: I’ll be darned. And they were living here in San Francisco?
Smiley Winters: Yeah, he went back. He went back to the old country, but she stayed in Knoll Forest. I think that’s what it is.
Chris Strachwitz: This was in the late fifties?
Smiley Winters: It’s ’59.
Chris Strachwitz: ’59, huh.
Smiley Winters: I went with Dinah in ’60, see.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh, did you tour with her?
Smiley Winters: I went with her about four months, see. We traveled all back East. Storyville, Brooklyn in nine days and then at Clarks in LA for three weeks and Chicago at the Regal for three weeks, three nights at the Cobra Club in, let’s see, Newport, Kentucky. Yeah, that’s right. That’s about it.
Chris Strachwitz: I see, but you pretty much had to play her kind of music, did you?
Smiley Winters: Yeah. Well, I mean accompany her, see. Her arrangement and at the time, Joe’s Avenue was a music director, see. And then Jim Arous on bass and I was the first drummer that she picked up. She usually just go pick up a drummer in town and use him there and that’d be it. And then take a bass and piano with her. But-
Chris Strachwitz: But she kept you?
Smiley Winters: Yeah, we were all on a program over here together. I was with Virga Gonzalez, big band over here. And they had Dave Brubeck and Dinah Washington was on the program over at Berkeley and at the Shriner’s. So she heard me both times. And then, so when she come back to town, she called and wanted to know when we rehearsing. And I went to work over here three weeks and then-
Chris Strachwitz: It was in 1960.
Smiley Winters: 1960, yeah. First part of January.
Chris Strachwitz: I see. Well, what have you done? What did you get into after that?
Smiley Winters: Well, I was a musical director for the Touché Record Company for two years.
Chris Strachwitz: Who was the owner of that?
Smiley Winters: Bronson Junior, James Bronson Junior. And he was a pretty good cat and I still have an album pending, I could, but he hasn’t-
Chris Strachwitz: He just released one. Did he?
Smiley Winters: Yeah, he released one, but it wasn’t my album. It was just Taking Care of Natural business. I was featured on it. It was album, which I was featured on. My name was featured on and everything. (editor’s note: Al Tanner Quintet Featuring William “Smiley” Winters* – Happiness Is… Takin’ Care Of Natural Business… Dig? – Touché Records– TRLP 100)
Chris Strachwitz: Who was the artist that this was under the name of-
Smiley Winters: Albert Tanner.
Chris Strachwitz: Albert Tanner.
Smiley Winters: Yeah, and he did all of… well he’s a wonderful musician. He did all compositions and everything.
Chris Strachwitz: Who were some of the other people on the record?
Smiley Winters: Roy Henderson and Alexander on trumpet and flute, which is by the way, a very good school teacher here in Richmond and that’s reason he won’t leave home for one thing. George Alexander, that’s his name and Edgar Williams was on bass.
Chris Strachwitz: And then you cut another session that was under your name or what? You mentioned something that they have another record pending.
Smiley Winters: Well, I was supposed to have another… The Moment of Truth that was supposed to been the album of which was supposed to be cut under my name, which I haven’t contacted them yet. I can see so…
Chris Strachwitz: Okay. And…
Smiley Winters: And I sort of been a guru and all the cats that came through. That are cats, the most of the modern cats from Handy, Farrow, even Coltrane we have sit down and program and talked about the advancement of music. And I sort of agreed with them on the advancement of music too because I’ve never been stuck in one vein. I’ve moved all the way with it as it progressed and at the same time I was able to play everything I never shunned playing anything.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah. I think that sort of comes out in this record that you made. I think like that one blues was almost old time swing.
Smiley Winters: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It was. Yeah.
Chris Strachwitz: And some of it-
Smiley Winters: Because I play rock. Like I say, I have another album in mind, which I would like to do from rock to Bach, which would do this. From one on up to which I would use, timpanies at the end, I’ll go right into the classical bit, but if I have enough time.
Smiley Winters: I have a wide scope. I would rather have a warehouse of my own and then turn out better musicians. That’s what I’ve always, I’ve always been a promoter.
Chris Strachwitz: As in you like to train people?
Smiley Winters: Yeah. You know, promotive and groom them for this coming thing because it’s going to be hard, really. For you to hold down a job and have all the necessary facilities that you need. See and I’m going to try to put them on the track where they can get it, see. And I’d rather do that than really play. But I enjoy playing, writing. But that’s what I’d like to do. Program. That’s my mostly… Turning out good cats. Because I have seen things change and I have seen good people and I’ve talked them. Like Handy used to be real shy over here. Man, right from here. I used to tell him go on over there and get the session.
Smiley Winters: Man, he was a long time getting over there. But he got finally when he got over there he couldn’t stop it. And Pharaoh, I told him to go to New York. He said, “I’m not ready.” I said, “well get on out there.” There he is man.
Chris Strachwitz: I see what you mean. Basically, a lot of the guys who are getting into this music are pretty shy people.
Smiley Winters: Yeah. And see and I know that I can see the ones that are coming, man. I can see the ones that have got the good potentials and I’ve always picked a winner man. From Bird all up. When I heard his first note, man, I knew I said something else. So I’ve been proud of this man because I’ve picked cats and they just turned out just like I say they would.
Chris Strachwitz: Who are some of the younger up and coming guys that you think now that are interesting?
Smiley Winters: Well, Sonny Simmons, that’s the latest creation, not of mine, but I had a part with him too because he’s right here too, you know? And we were all together and I’v e watched him grow and that’s the latest music. That’s the only thing I can predict really other than the other young cats that are coming up that I see, in schools. You have cats like Mike Breen who thinks he’s potential. He’s in another vein right now, but you can see it growing. He’s going to do something else. So now (?) has got a thing of his own and he’s well set all he needs… Like I say, if we’d get a big place to teach, he’d be one of the main features in the.
Chris Strachwitz: And be heard too.
Smiley Winters: You see what I mean?
Chris Strachwitz: I was wondering what your thoughts are about… I think we’ve all watched this, the fact that, jazz in the 30s and even through the 40s was actually a popular music amongst Negros in general. While today it seems to be a very small audience for the jazz music.
Smiley Winters: Well one reason they’ve kind of put more money in this other thing and pushed it out of focus. You see what I mean? They were leaning towards this, but all of a sudden here come a million dollars and push rock right in front of their face, all over the radio and everywhere. And so now it’s, but the jazz is still going strong as ever, but it doesn’t have support that rock has. That’s the reason they have lesser people. But you have people, like you say, the underground, you have a lot of people in the underground will support it, that knowing it’s still appreciated.
Smiley Winters: And some of them still stuck in one area, bebop area, swing area, but they still appreciate some form of jazz. So it’s not actually, a way, you just don’t see a lot of modern functions that these, concerts and things because the programming don’t be up to par a lot of times. People would be programmed like the festival down there. Look what they put on them for them people you know?
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah, that’s true.
Smiley Winters: So you don’t see half the people that you should see on the scenes. You say, well where are they? You know this is the reason. Poor programming.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah, I would agree with you there. I think Ralph Gleason also commented on that. You had to suffer through a lot of garbage to hear the good stuff.
Smiley Winters: Good stuff. That’s really bad when you got good stuff just laying around. See you got even good local stuff laying around really if you don’t want to buy the professional. They could have came up to San Francisco and they were full grown four groups and bring them down for the festival, you know?
Smiley Winters: And that would have been better than dragging him through all the rest of the trash. So that’s the answer to your question of it’s not as many because you don’t hardly see them now because I’m on account of this and all you see now is rock and this and that the other, because the money has pushed it out of proportion. I’ll put it like that. If we had that much money behind it you would see the difference. If somebody just donated, like they do everything else. $1 billion from the White House or a grant you’d see them a lot different.
Chris Strachwitz: I guess also in the 40s there was… Like today’s soul music is so all pervading, I guess there wasn’t one kind of music. You had all different kinds.
Smiley Winters: You had all different kinds. You had from Lead Belly and then you had everything. You participated. If you wanted to work just like now you had to participate in everything.
Smiley Winters: And this is the problem. One was just as popular as the other. Only this one outgrew the other by creativity put it like this. That’s what happens when you say pop or commercial. The only thing that made those famous was the money but jazz, creativity made him famous. Because we didn’t have any money to push, like Linda Feller was only the few cats that really dug and really put his money in there for behind it and a few others. See. So you had that everything was popular but just things grew in different proportions and I watched it all and I said gas, don’t watch it all.
Chris Strachwitz: Well, let’s see if you can…
Smiley Winters: My intention now is to really go to Europe and study some more and make a lot of recordings if I can with a lot of different people, a lot of different places, and promotions. I like this more, it’s not too much of myself making a lot of albums but promoting a lot of things because I can show most people, I can be of a good talent scout and worth to most any company, because I know the musicians. I know half the musicians around the world now. From Spain, all the way everywhere, North Africa. And if once I get over there I’ll know.
Chris Strachwitz: And with your versatility you can play any kind of music-
Smiley Winters: And I want to learn even more. Even that’s why I’m going over study some more I want to study with really the musicians over there. I think they got some qualified musicians taking the technicality, and everything else in Europe.
Chris Strachwitz: Sure, their technic-
Smiley Winters: And see it and you need techniques. Don’t let nobody fool you man. Like a cat. Say well color cats are gifted. The color cats got to develop your gifts. If you don’t do the up, it doesn’t mean a thing.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah.
Smiley Winters: You got to develop it. Then you really have to study harder than most people because you really have to develop it because you emotions hang up some time with technique.
Chris Strachwitz: Because emotions are probably the strongest among.
Smiley Winters: Strongest among the bulls. But you need techniques really bad. Just like you need your left and right arm. You really need it because to motivate you over your grounds. If you don’t do that, you can’t move for where you going to show somebody the direction you’re moving in because you cannot execute.
Smiley Winters: You can’t understand. And a lot of times you can’t explain, you’ve got to execute. I can sit and talk forever here, but if I don’t execute, you never know what I’m talking about.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s true.
Smiley Winters: So it’s really necessarily to execution.
Chris Strachwitz: I guess, are there any plans in the way or something to-
Smiley Winters: Yeah, well I like-
Chris Strachwitz: To go to school here?
Smiley Winters: Yeah, well that’s what I want now. I’m trying to get a negotiate for a large warehouse if I can. That’s for a large school. It’d be everybody at school, whoever participated just for the benefit of creating better art, better sounds, and just in all better around everybody around. That’s the whole idea.
Chris Strachwitz: Because it seemed to be many musicians very much devoted to-
Smiley Winters: Their lives.
Chris Strachwitz: Music.
Smiley Winters: That’s the first thing they have to be dedicated and devoted and then the rest is there. Because every place else has the laboratory, but music, you need that to create something.
Chris Strachwitz: It seems to be true. And of course the universities and schools are very much hung up on the European classical thing and don’t seem to get into-
Smiley Winters: Well see that’s the reason, like the albums and things that we made for Arhoolie and a few others, it’s the music, this haven’t been but six months of study and concentration of playing together. Now, just imagine if it’s been about a couple of years we’ve spent together doing this, it would have sounded much triple times better. You can just imagine what would have happened. We just had a whole things mapped out. This is about seven months work since August, really. Excuse me. Because that’s when I came back to town over here. I was working over in San Francisco and now got with Bert and Chris. And Chris came by every morning we started working from there on up and so boom. At first real professional thing was that television at the 22nd of October.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh yeah, that KQED program.
Smiley Winters: That went off like clockwork too. But I see it. I know we can develop a lot of good things if we only had a place to present it. I mean warehouse is the right place to present this. We present our own programs and everything. It’ll make money. It’s no question about it because the thing that we put on there, everybody come to see us and then we’d have enough. We know enough people like we know enough writers and everything for public advertisement, we know enough cats, mouth to mouth and press. Then we had a phone in and people coming in and out of town. There wouldn’t have been no question of finance. It just would take a little time.
Chris Strachwitz: Do you think that if you give weekend concerts you could finance the rent of it and so on?
Smiley Winters: We give it, we give everyday things and the weekend concert and clinics and have a professional musician standing there so they can give a flow of knowledge.
Smiley Winters: See what I mean? While I’m having an overflow going. Like the music come to town. You don’t have to worry nobody a place to stay we have the top floor for a place to stay while he’s working free, you know? So he’d get it in turn, return. He devote his knowledge to the warehouse and hold clinics and classes and et cetera. So it’ll pay off. So we just charge, you can charge for rehearsals every day and people would come. So it’ll pay off itself. And that’s the always-
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah, I think that would work.
Smiley Winters: It’ll pay off because you got more musician now than you ever had in history. Young musicians. So you need these places, not only here, all over the country. You need a warehouse in every city just for this purpose and you see how much creates and they would do and how much art would come out. Even to the painter. They could come there and get ideas and different things. You can have a lot of new things. A lot of new aspects come out of this that it’s not even on board yet. Not even on the drawing board.
Smiley Winters: Even see that even we going to have our own studio in there where we can have our own recording equipment and record every day. We have tapes and things every day, so you won’t have to be waiting for no one specific cab. You come at anytime of day and listen to what you want to hear.
Chris Strachwitz: And catch the good things-
Smiley Winters: Everything and it’s bad as well as the good. So you know what to do and we’ve got musicians that are engineers. Then all we need is a place for them to develop. And that’s what we need now. That’s what’s wrong, now. Mostly engineers that recording us are not musicians.
Chris Strachwitz: No, they-
Smiley Winters: So this is the hang up now. So I figured I can right this if I get this place.
Chris Strachwitz: Is Wes Rollins a part of the movement to get this place?
Smiley Winters: Well he’s so hung up now in his thing, his acting and et cetera and he’s a director. That’s what it is. He’s the one kind of director and I’m a music director. So that’s the different side. It wouldn’tcollide together once we’d get something started, but right now we work in, we have to work it separately. He have to work on the actors and I got to work on the musicians. But I got another fellow at San Francisco State. He’s another director too. He wants me to work with him, write scores for plays. See all of this? I don’t want to only cover one aspect too. I want to cover everything from choreography and everything else. See music is a wide scope.
Smiley Winters: And when I get this place, this is what it’s going to cover. Television and everything else. If we going get our own television station in there, that would be beautiful.
Chris Strachwitz: You could-
Smiley Winters: You could do everything.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah, You could ask KQED to come in and do something.
Smiley Winters: Once we get this big warehouse-
Chris Strachwitz: You have a place where you can all be together.
Smiley Winters: And I figure the warehouse is the only place. I’ve tried other places and then it doesn’t work. Houses and different things. But a warehouse would be where you could remodel it over to fit just the purpose. A three story warehouse. Downstairs studio, second floor office, and third floors, living quarters.
Smiley Winters: This way you get… It’ll pay for itself. We put a coffee shop or a health bar in there and et cetera. I don’t want to have no liquor on the premises. I want to have a health bar. I’m really going to build, I’m not going to really take away nothing. Come there and you get changed.
Chris Strachwitz: Very admirable cause I think. I probably put this on the back of the liners.
Smiley Winters: You can take this for your own private notes too. Because this is a lot of business in this. You can see it, you can see it, you can see if you get some money that with some money you could back. Because it’s not like you’re not going to… You speculating because this is going to grow as it goes along. You can see it growing. You can watch it because things going to be happening.
Smiley Winters: Participation because as long as there’s music going, that’s where the money is. As long as musicians are flowing. Like I said, there’s more musicians now than in history and that when they come in younger, they come in faster, and they is playing more. So they needs places like this. So it’s money in it. So you just sit there and wait. When it started coming, all you have to do is keep the connection open, keep the telephones where you can call to Berlin, Paris.
Chris Strachwitz: That is if we can develop an audience for this new music-
Smiley Winters: You can develop nothing but the musicians are that. You hear what I’m saying? Every musician have three or four people of their own, guests. If every musician say, “Well you have to bring 10 people to the concert before it’d be a concert.” This way you’ll be sure of this money. See what I mean? Then see you start off like this. This is the way I intend to start off. Each cat he bring five. We’ve got 20 musicians, that’s a hundred people. We know a hundred people going to be there, no more.
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah. She wants to tell you something.
Smiley Winters: All I want to see is music and more music and more places to participate in music. And function and music brings out everything else. Music brings out a lot of artistic things in other people because like when Bird hit the scene it changed a lot of people’s lives. A lot of people lives would become better. Maybe they become none traditional, but they become better because they felt freer and relaxed. Coltrane. Same with every time there’s another jump. So I don’t see why they don’t keep injecting music as a head thing because it really enhances everything that you got going here. See, because I’ve watched them change. I really watched people change. I watch normal people work every day at just a normal job and they listened to jazz and they happy as long as they can listen to jazz. And you got something coming out at them and it changed the whole aspect of music.
Smiley Winters: I mean living too, see. They live in up and they more satisfied and still, I mean I just seen it. This happened. It looks real happy to me. So, and I’ve got a lot of people like me on a kind of, I’ve made him happy. See, I like played for a lot of dances and see a lot of people pay for dances. My daughter’s dance, they got in line, of course the line, but they do the modern boogaloo and all of this. So they won’t try to hamper them on. Tell them what to dance, they dance like the feeling makes them dance better.