REPORT: A tribute in New York to pianist Derek Smith (1931-2016)

Preparing for the tribute at St Peter’s Church, NYC

The British-born pianist DEREK SMITH was a member of the Dankworth band in the 1950’s, moved to the United States in 1957 and had a highly successful career there for the next half-century. He was in the Benny Goodman band. At one point he made a recording with three of the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Another high-point was his role for five years as the pianist in the band of NBC’s Tonight Show. He died in August 2016, and a very well-attended tribute tribute was held in New York City at the end of October. Derek Smith’s daughter tells the story of that day: 

On Tuesday, October 25th , at St. Peters Church in New York City, a tribute was held to honor the great jazz musician and family man Derek Smith. Attended by his adoring family, friends, lifelong fans and fellow musicians, it was an evening filled with memories and great music.

Derk Smith as a teenager on Brighton Beach

It began with a photo montage showing Derek’s long and notable life. As a child walking along Brighton Beach with his family, playing with local bands as a teen, a baby-faced member of John Dankworth’s band, and boarding a transatlantic ship with his new wife en route to his new life in America. It continued with periodic glimpses into his life and career, showing dozens of hit album covers, group shots of the many musicians he played with and ended with many touching moments with his family.

A few words of introduction were spoken by his two daughters Helen and Valerie, and wife Shirley, describing what a happy, generous and gifted man he was, and how his incredible talent enabled him to have a seven decade-long career doing what he loved.

Warren Vache Performing at the tribute

The program was then handed over to the Master of Ceremonies, Dick Hyman. What followed were moving words and music by musicians both young and old, who had played with him and been inspired by him. Those musicians included Warren Vache, Harry Allen, Jerry Bruno, Bucky Pizzarelli, Jay Leonhart, Bill Charlap, Sandy Stewart, and Randy Sandke. The final performance of the evening was a beautiful flute and piano duet played by Dick Hyman and Derek’s granddaughter Samantha, who performed Concerto in D minor by Molique.

Finally, through the magic of technology the evening ended with a video of Derek performing one of his signature tunes Love For Sale. The feel in the room was if he was there performing, literally stealing the show and ending the tribute with a standing ovation.

With sincerest thanks to Derek Smith’s daughter Valerie Anderson for contributing this piece and the photos, and to Keith McDowall for instigating and providing background information.

LINK: Peter Vacher’s Guardian obituary

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. My name is Mike Gough ,over 40 years ago I was playing in a pub in the east end of London
    in Plaistow with Shirleys father Ted Bent,Ted had told Derekof me (I was /am a pianist) and
    Derek and Shirley came in to the pub to hear me,he was very friendly and played a number.
    The following week at the pub Ted told me that Derek thought that I had the potential of
    becoming a really good Jazz pianist, and would I like him to introduce me to his musical
    friends in London, I was thrilled to be thought of as that talented by someone as talented as
    But I had decided to pursue a more ‘ordinary’ life as a piano tuner when I retired eight years
    ago I had 600 hundred clientel many were top class professional musicians,I have never
    forgotten the one time I met Derek, thank you for letting me reply to you I still have a photo
    of Ted and I at the pub in Plaistow,he was another really nice person.

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