WBEZ colleagues remember legendary jazz radio host Larry Smith

June 28, 2011

Former WBEZ Jazz Host Larry Smith passed away last weekend of a heart attack. He was 83 years old. The longtime overnight host of WBEZ's Jazz Forum had a flair for broadcasting, and his voice was one of the most recognizable on Chicago airwaves.

Smith began his tenure at WBEZ in 1982 and during much of that time, he owned the overnight airwaves.  When I first started at the station, I knew exactly who he was the moment we were was introduced, such was the distinctive character of his voice:  throaty, choppy and pulsing with personality.

Later in my career, I was doing the Schadenfreude comedy program at WBEZ, which often had us working well into the wee hours. I would go into the kitchen to grab more coffee and run into Larry eating his take out dinner from Beef & Brandy on State Street. We would exchange pleasantries and he would send me off with a booming "OK, now!" or "Don't work too hard!"

Larry was one of the best.  I could go on and on with stories about him, but I think I'll let my colleagues speak for me. Here are some thoughts and memories from my fellow WBEZ colleagues who worked closely with Larry Smith:

Torey Malatia, WBEZ general manager:

Larry Smith was one of the most highly regarded jazz broadcasters in the country during his over two decades of hosting music on WBEZ.  Jazz performers from internationally renowned artists, to young local performers who just cut their first recording, dropped in on Larry’s jazz show on WBEZ after performances at theaters, concert halls, and clubs, to talk and jam  (yes, play music live on the radio)  with swingin’ Larry Smith.  

I’ll never forget Ira’s early This American Life broadcasts, when the show was local in late 1994, closing with Ira promoting the upcoming schedule on Friday night.  He’d say, “and then, Larry Smith, Larry Smith, Larry Smith,” as if the name were of too much import to say it just once.

Richard Steele: Former WBEZ jazz host and current WBEZ contributor:

“Sit back, relax, and let’s swing together”

Those words were Larry Smith’s trademark opening for his nightly jazz show on WBEZ.  And swing he did…for the entire length of his show.  Even his favorite ballads had a ‘slowed down’ swing element.  Jazz was his true passion.  He would often expound on a noteworthy trumpet solo by someone like Dizzy Gillespie.  That’s probably because back in the day, Larry played a little jazz trumpet himself.  If you’re wondering just how much he loved this music, you need to know that in addition to emceeing jazz performances featuring just about every legendary musician in jazz, he once did a regular ‘live’ radio show from the famed Sutherland Lounge, where he did on-air interviews with everybody from Count Basie to Miles Davis.  

But one of my most enduring memories was a weekly eight hour jazz show that Larry did here at WBEZ.  I sat in for him a few times when he was on vacation.  The show was so long that it almost turned me against jazz.  But not Larry…he loved it! He’ll be sorely missed by Chicago’s expansive jazz community (especially the old-timers), but I’m confident that they’ll ‘memorialize’ Larry by continuing to swing!

Claude Cunningham: Director of Facilities at WBEZ. Claude will be delivering the eulogy at Larry's funeral:

In the early days of listening to jazz radio, I came across a jock who was playing some hot jazz music (swinging, finger popping , foot patting, jazz music). One day my uncle took me to the Sutherland Hotel where I first met Mr. Smith. It was one of the first times meeting a real live jock. Later, Larry and I became best friends. In the early 80’s, Larry took his live jazz show to a place called "The Chances R" restaurant.  He called me and asked if I would handle the door for the "Larry Smith Jazz Party." This was the place where musician like Von Freeman, George Freeman, Bunky Green, John Young, Jimmy Ellis, Guy Fricano, Eddie Johnson, Eddie DeHass, Geraldine DeHass, and so many other local and national jazz musicians stopped by for the 'Jazz Party.' I know my friend is swinging and popping his fingers on the other side.

Heidi Goldfein: Voice of WBEZ, former Morning Edition host:

I remember when Larry would host/work overnights and I worked the mornings, so we would hand off the baton every morning around 4:30am.  I would come in kind of tired and groggy. He was full of life and energy and always with a smile on his face. Larry loved jazz and working in radio.

And for those of us who had the opportunity, what a special experience it was to hear his in-depth weather reports.  Let’s face it, he had tons of time to fill especially when we aired news programming overnight, so what was he going to do other than the weather?  It was Larry doing weather with his own unique, trademark style. Tony Sarabia does a good Larry.

It makes me smile just to think about it. He’ll be missed.

Tony Sarabia, host of WBEZ midday and Radio M:

Larry Smith was more than a colleague; he was a friend. During my years at WBEZ with Larry, he and I shared lots of laughs and talked in depth about jazz. I remember once when I was still Morning Edition host I had to pull an all-nighter to finish a story for our Chicago Matters series and ended up sleeping on the floor in a studio instead of going home. Larry was hosting the overnight jazz program and I asked him to wake me up at around 4:30 am. He reminded me of my dad waking me up; he was brief, just repeating my name, "Tony…Tony…Tony…it’s 4:30…time to get up. Tony…Tony…Tony."

That’s a moment I will never forget. I will miss Larry’s smile, his newsboy cap and hearing his favorite adjective when talking about a jazz cut: swinging.

Lisa Labuz, Morning Edition host:

I would come in to get ready for Morning Edition and I would get the FCC Log from Larry (the document that tells us which underwriter announcement to read when).

Every single morning, Larry would ask me, "How's the weather?!" It didn't matter if I answered, "Rainy" or "Cold" or "Snowy" or "Warm" or "It's hailing!" or "There's a tornado out there" he would always, always answer, "Well, I'll take it anyway!"

One morning I came in, completely bundled up because we'd had several inches of snow overnight - hat, scarf, long duffle coat, boots, the works. Larry said, "I saw you on the security monitor. You look so nice - you look like a French woman!" I have no idea what he meant, but he always made me laugh.

Larry Smith was always kind to me and such a sweet, gentle man. He was a sharp dresser, too. The man liked his hat. I'm saddened to hear he's gone. I'll remember him so fondly.

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Finally, Melba Lara found this all-staff e-mail from then-Program Director Ron Jones. This was written when Larry retired in September 2005:

Since 1982 Larry has taken Chicago Public Radio listeners on a remarkable journey through jazz. His musical knowledge, distinctive voice and tireless enthusiasm captured the attention of thousands of jazz lovers throughout the region.  For many listeners, Larry’s show was a destination.  On Friday nights ‘BEZ was the place for live jam sessions in the ‘80s, with many of the city’s top musicians dropping by to spend time with Larry.  It was the place to be heard.

Larry’s broadcast career included stints at other stations in the region as a jazz host.  Many southside listeners recall his legendary live broadcasts from the Sutherland Lounge on South Drexel in Hyde Park.  Those broadcasts, on WSBC-AM, featured Larry’s interviews with many of top jazz artists, including Count Basie and Cannonball Adderley.  In addition, Larry also anchored newscasts and hosted a talk show on WWCA in Gary, Indiana.

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If you worked with Larry or want to share your memories, please do so in the comment section below.

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