Willie “the Lion”

October 15, 2007 at 8:58 pm (jazz, Jewish music, Jim D)

Bob has a post about Jewish musicians: one of the most extraordinary of whom was Willie “The Lion” Smith, a WW1 war hero, pioneer of “stride” piano, inspiration for Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, patron of Artie Shaw, and cantor at a Harlem synagogue.

“The Lion has been the greatest influence on most of the great piano players who have been exposed to his fire, his harmonic lavishness, his stride – what a luxury”.

-Duke Ellington 

Well, judge for yourself- here’s The Lion, showing how to stride, even in old age:

Introduced by Humph Lyttelton; Lennie Hastings on drums and toupee, Brian Brocklehurst, bass and pipe..


  1. Jim Denham said,

    That’s very strange: but to see and hear the Lion, just click twice on the picture.

  2. BobFromBrockley said,

    Fantastic Jim. And thanks for all the details on Mezz Mezzrow – loved them.

  3. Bruce said,

    I recently heard someone – I can’t remember who but someone I respected – claim that Willie the Lion wasn’t Jewish after all. I thought it had been established in jazz lore since the year dot.

  4. BobFromBrockley said,

    More Willie The Lion Smith at http://brockley.blogspot.com/2008/07/brass.html

    Bruce, I think it is pretty beyond dispute that he was Jewish in that his father was Jewish, and he was culturally very Jewish as well as black. His student Brooks Kerr says “The Lion was immersed in the Judaic faith. He considered himself, he took his father’s faith. His father, Frank Bertholoff, was a Jew.”

    This is from the script of the documentary Willie The Lion:



    The only ones who knew how to cook up pig’s feet, then pickle ‘em up real good were the Jewish people. We’d go around later in the evening and say, “Noch a Bissel, noch, noch. Ve shtayt? [laughs] [Bob: nokh a bisl ()נאָך אַ ביסל= a bit more. Ve shtayt = [do you] understand?]


    He did speak a little Yiddish. And I asked him how that came about and he said, well, he believed in that religion. He didn’t know that I was Jewish. I didn’t tell him that. But I was very surprised because his card was in Yiddish characters.

    CLOSE-UP: SMITH’S BUSINESS CARD—”Modern Piano Teaching” and “Hebrew Cantor” with Hebrew writing.


    Willie not only celebrated his bar mitzvah at age thirteen, but in later years he became the cantor of a synagogue in Harlem.

    There’s youtube of the Duke and The Lion on Frost, playing Perdido, here: http://jamesonpenn.blogspot.com/2007/08/youtube-gold-billy-taylor-willie-lion.html
    Unfortunately not the Yiddish bit!

    I guess some people with a more restricted definition of “Jewish” (e.g. only if your mother is Jewish, or only if you rigidly follow Orthodox law) might deny he was Jewish, but…

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