John Henry Smith II was born June 25, 1922, in Birmingham, Ala., where his father was a foundry worker and played banjo. When the factory closed during the Depression, the Smiths were uprooted and eventually settled in Portland, Maine.
As a child, he did not have money to buy a guitar, so he came to an arrangement with pawnshops in Portland to keep instruments in tune in return for getting to play them.
He was accomplished enough at 13 to turn professional in a country band. He made $4 a night — good enough money during the Depression that he quit high school. He was drawn to the improvisational possibilities of jazz after hearing the guitar innovators Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian on the radio.
During World War II, he learned the cornet to play in an Army Air Forces band. He eventually became a licensed pilot.
His first marriage, to Gertrude Larrivee, ended in divorce. His second wife, Ann Westerstrom, died in childbirth in 1958. His third wife, Sandy Robbins, died in 2006.
Survivors include two children from the first marriage, John Smith III of Houston and David Smith of Colorado Springs; a daughter from his second marriage, Kim Stewart of Centennial, Colo; a brother; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
To critical praise, Mosaic Records reissued in 2002 many of the sides he recorded for the Roost label in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1998, Mr. Smith received the Smithsonian Institution’s James Smithson Bicentennial Medal for his contributions to American culture.
Mr. Smith once told the jazz critic Leonard Feather that one of his least-heralded contributions to music was trying to teach sophisticated jazz harmonies to teenage rock musicians in Colorado.
“It’s wonderful,” he said, “when a youngster will come up and say, ‘Hey, you remember that seventh chord with the flatted fifth that you showed us last week? Well, we used that in one of our songs.’ ”