Whatever sounds they’re drawn to, most young musicians fantasize about the spotlight — a rock star headlining an arena, or a jazz master holding court in a roomful of rapt listeners.
Growing up in West Philly, Lee Smith looked up to less glamorous idols. “I always felt like the guys in the orchestra were the real heroes,” says Smith, reclining in the living room of his home in Sicklerville, N.J. “They’re kind of anonymous, nobody knows who they are, but yet they’re producing this great music. That’s what I related to. I never felt like I had a need to step out front.”
That need has finally, belatedly, arisen. After 40 years as a first-call bassist in the R&B and jazz worlds, Smith is releasing his debut album as a leader. The apt title, Sittin’ on a Secret, refers to the compositions the 60-year-old bassist has been writing for decades, a half-dozen of which finally come out of the drawer on this record.
But it’s just as fitting a description of Smith himself, a too-well-kept secret outside of local jazz-aficionado circles. Google mainly brings up results related to his son, superstar bassist Christian McBride. But those who’ve heard Smith on the bandstand over the years — with saxophonists Odean Pope and Sonny Fortune, vocalist Denise King, or during his decade-long run with organist/pianist Trudy Pitts at the Japanese restaurant Meiji-En — realized long ago where McBride inherited his fleet fingers and warm resonance. Sittin’ on a Secret — which Smith will celebrate with a release party at Chris’ Jazz Café featuring most of the album’s all-star band — may finally let this jazz cat out of the bag.
“I had this passion and this music that wants to come out, but for some reason it just hasn’t yet,” Smith shrugs. “I’m at a point in my life now where I felt like it needed to.”
Smith is a classically trained musician, but never studied the bass a day in his life. He began playing trumpet in the fifth grade at Overbrook Elementary, continuing through his single year at West Chester University (then College). The bass was a lark, begun when he picked up an acoustic guitar in his grandparents’ bedroom that was missing a few strings. After his sister bought him an album of Motown hits, he began playing along, using a tuning he devised himself.
He maintained that unorthodox tuning when he got his hands on an actual electric bass in high school and when he started hitting the road with R&B acts, including Brenda & the Tabulations, Billy Paul and The Delfonics. He dropped out of college after his freshman year to continue touring, but pop music began to lose its appeal.
“I started getting bored because of the level of musicianship,” recalls Smith. “A guy I went to high school with called me out of the blue and asked me if I wanted to audition for Mongo Santamaria. I thought that would be a challenge, because I hadn’t played Latin music before.”
He rose to that challenge, leading to a five-year stint with Santamaria and a move to New York City.
Moving back to Philly to help care for his ailing mother, Smith embarked on another lucrative gig, playing Atlantic City casinos in the 1980s. Since that time, he’s stayed closer to home, anchoring local musicians and touring artists in need of a rock-solid pickup band. Until now, those outlets have satisfied Smith’s need for personal expression.
“I’m not the most talkative person in the world, but I feel like I can express really deep inner feelings through the music,” he says. “The challenge is to try to connect with the audience; otherwise you could just stay home and play. As a sideman I’d like to project that this bass is an important part of the ensemble. Being a leader is going to be a whole new experience.”
Fri., Oct. 5, 8 and 10 p.m., $15-$20, Chris’ Jazz Café, 1421 Sansom St., 215-568-3131, chrisjazzcafe.com.