"YOU HAVE to live the blues," says Georgia-born Carrie Smith, "and I think I've lived a little bit of it."
Smith began singing in a Baptist church choir in Gainesville, Ga., before her family moved to Uniontown, N.J., when she was eight. "I was singing the old spirituals and my mother and dad had Bessie Smith records from back in the '20s, and I listened to them when I was very small. Something sort of clicked, you know, and I says, 'Oh, I'd like to do that one day,' -- but it was quite a time before I did it."
Something did indeed click, for Carrie Smith has traveled all over this country and Europe for a decade, recreating with her rich contralto the tradition of the great blues singers of the 1920s. And though Smith can capture with uncanny presence the spirit of the great Bessie Smith, she is no mere copycat and will, likely as not, include in a set gospel pieces, work songs and jazz-infused numbers, all delivered with an individuality that bespeaks art, not imitation.
Early blues and traditional jazz afficionados will have an opportunity to catch her in person tomorrow night at 9 when she performs, under the auspices of the Potomac River Jazz Club, with the highly respected, Washington-based Buck Creek Jazz Band at the Old Town Ramada Inn, Alexandria (call 532-TRAD).
Smith has been encouraged by a renewed interest in jazz and blues among young people in this country.
In the audiences of high schools and colleges where she has given programs she has found there are "many, many who listen to the records and know where it's all coming from." But her experiences on a European tour with the New York Jazz Repertory Company opened her eyes to the discrepancy between the general indifference to the music here and the high regard in which it is held abroad, and she laments that "it's very sad that you have to go all the way to Spain to record." However, the response in the Soviet Union, where she and the 16-piece orchestra presented a tribute to Louis Armstrong, was the biggest shock of all.
"It was very interesting for me to see the people there. The KGB, they didn't want them to get close to us for some reason -- that's the way it is over there. But they knew every song and had read about the musicians. I was invited to some of their homes, and they had like 2,000 or 3,000 albums of American music. The musicians over there, they write from the records and they play it and you'd swear you were listening to Count Basie or whoever. It's a shame to say that here in America jazz music is our tradition and these people know more about it than we do."
Cornet player Jim Ritter, coleader (with trombonist Frank Mesich) of the Buck Creek Jazz Bank, says Carrie Smith's approach, coming from the blues expression of the '20s, is an ideal match with the five-year-old BCJB since it, in turn, derives its inspiration from the collective improvisation of the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band of that same period. "The ensemble sound is the thing that excites us all the most. It's not really a solo band and although everybody can take adequate solos, that's not really where we enjoy it -- we enjoy the playing together as an ensemble unit."
Truly a local band that has made it onto the national scene, the BCJB's hard-driving sound and its diverse repertoire of classic jazz, blues and spirituals has been featured at festivals in California, Colorado, Illinois and New Hampshire. With three albums out, word of the band's excellence is no doubt spreading throughout international traditional jazz circles. It's just possible that one of these years, the seven members of the BCJB will be scheduling their vacations from their day jobs to accommodate gigs across the seas. The others are clarinetist John Skillman, pianist Rick Cordrey, banjoist Jerry Addicott, tuba player John Wood and drummer Gil Brown.