From South Side to Sinatra: Mike Smith still embodies Chicago jazz

Musician Mike Smith
Mike Smith plays the alto and tenor saxophone at the same time at Andy's in Chicago on March 8.

By Mike Davis

Mike Smith still remembers the first time Frank Sinatra yelled at him.

“He’d turn around and give you this look that went right through you…” Smith said. “One time Sinatra yelled at me that it was too loud. So, I brought everybody down and we played softer. The next night he came up to me and wanted it louder.”

This came with the job description of saxophonist and music contractor. As a saxophonist, Smith’s job was to play loud or soft, but always well. As a music contractor, his job was to hire the musicians he and Sinatra shared the stage with. His first exposure to the contracting process was in high school, when he put together the school’s first jazz band.

Smith took his music education to the next level by way of North Texas State after winning the Charlie Parker Scholarship. “No I wasn’t the best,” Smith said of the highly-competitive program with 250 saxophone students alone. Yet, it was his fluency in improvisation that made all the difference.

“First of all, I’m thinking you’re not a young guy, I don’t know if that circular breathing and all that stuff is great for you, I wish you weren’t doing it,” said Judy Smith, his piano-playing wife of 38 years. “But another piece of me is just like, you can’t not be the artist that you are.”

When he finished at University, a friend recommended Smith to join trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s band. He then transitioned to play alongside drummer, Buddy Rich. It was with Rich’s band, backing up Sinatra’s, that lead to getting the ultimate call-up.

“When I did get the job with Sinatra, I went and bought every recording, my parents had some of them, but I went and got every recording there was,” Smith said. “I listened to every recording and how they played it.”

Smith toured with Frank Sinatra from 1981 to 1994, and traveled all around the world. But the Sinatra Smith became closest to was in fact Frank Sinatra, Jr, someone he once called a bandmate and best friend.

Smith has been a mainstay at the iconic Andy’s Jazz Club on Hubbard Street for a remarkable 35 years. In 1981, Smith started playing a weekly gig at Andy’s, around the same time he was touring with Sinatra.

Playing alongside Smith since the age of 25, and now 37, professional pianist and teacher Jordan Baskin, knows Smith better than most.

“I think Mike has mastered the jazz language,” Baskin said.

Smith, like most jazz musicians is happy to reflect. But it’s his forward vision that informs just as much of his musicianship.

“I had other aspirations too, I wanted to be a soloist,” Smith said. “I would say that if you want to be a jazz musician, you have to be in New York,” said Smith. “I didn’t choose that route basically because I was a very family oriented person… I always just stayed in Chicago. Was that a good thing? For me it was a good thing. But my son, he’s a bass player, I really encouraged him to go to New York and do the New York jazz scene.”

Smith’s trajectory as a jazz musician might seem familiar, but his journey and masterful play is anything but; he’s trekked around the world, sharing the stage and studio with the likes of Tony Bennett, Harry Connick, Jr., and Buddy Rich.

The 2016 album Smith released, “Close Enough for Love,” originally was planned to be a collaboration with Frank, Jr., but his death lead to the replacement being jazz vocalist Kurt Elling. Recorded entirely in the basement of his home in Wilmette, at 59, Smith produced the entire album himself.

Photo at top: Mike Smith plays the alto and tenor saxophone at the same time at Andy’s in Chicago on March 8. (Mike Davis/MEDILL)