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MUSIC : For This Jazz Pianist, Friends Are the Key

January 15, 1995|CAROL CHASTANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the time came for him to start his set, Howlett Smith made his way around the piano bar and through the restaurant. Moving easily through a maze of tables and brown leather chairs, the pianist stopped to chat with fans, some of whom called out his name and reached out to clasp his hands.

Smith is blind, but he knows the Bob Burns layout by heart. After all, he has played for 12 years at the Santa Monica restaurant and bar, where he performs standards and tunes of his own that have been recorded by such artists as Nancy Wilson and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.

Tonight at the restaurant, Smith will celebrate the release of his first CD with friends and colleagues. If it hadn't been for them, says Smith, this accomplishment would have remained a dream. The CD is fittingly titled "Here for You."

Smith had been a musical director for a Broadway show, "Me and Bessie," about the life of blues singer Bessie Smith, and worked at a supper club before getting the gig at Bob Burns in 1982.

There, fans such as actor Pat Morita stop by to listen to the music and chat with Smith. Smith's partner at Bob Burns is Larry Gales, a veteran bass player who has performed with Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and is himself a jazz great. Gales says Smith is in that same league.

"This cat does more stuff with the 88s (piano keys) than cats who have sight," said Gales, 59. "And he's such a prolific writer. He can be serious, sentimental, and he can be funny. Working with him is never routine."

In addition to playing and singing standard ballads like "Misty" and "My Funny Valentine," Smith also wrote his own music, which included humorous tunes recorded in a special computerized studio in his South Los Angeles home.

Smith saved thousands of dollars to build the studio. It allowed him to play notes into a computer that printed out the music notation so that people with eyesight could read it. Another computer had a speech program that read back the lyrics he had written. Smith also had a keyboard that, with a push of its Braille-labeled buttons, would add strings or horns and other sounds to an arrangement.

But two years ago, vandals broke into his studio and stole his equipment, which was worth about $10,000. "The tragedy was that it took me a long time to save up for the equipment," said the 61-year-old Smith.

His friends soon came to the rescue. Fellow musicians staged a fund-raiser at Bob Burns, asking patrons to give what they could.

"You could hardly get in the place, it was so crowded," said Betty Bryant, a jazz singer and pianist who often performs at Bob Burns. "A lot of musicians came out and performed . . . Billy Mitchell, Linda Hopkins (the star of 'Me and Bessie'). It was a who's who of Los Angeles musicians."

The huge turnout, Bryant added, was no surprise.

"Howlett is very giving," she said. "If anyone needs him, he's usually there. He's done parties, funerals, weddings, sometimes not asking for any remuneration."

When a person acts as Howlett does, said Bryant, "naturally others are willing to give back."

Apart from the fund-raiser, others who had learned of Smith's misfortune made contributions. Ultimately, the musician was able to replace the equipment in his studio.

"I was overwhelmed with their generosity," said Smith. "Those people, most of whom are musicians, are not a wealthy lot."

Smith said he even got money from people he didn't know.

Smith produced the CD for $8,000. A project like his, he said, usually costs $15,000. Smith said he cut corners by doing his own arrangements and working a lot in his own studio.

On a recent night in the club, Smith and Gales played a tune called "Chitlins in the White House" from the CD. Some in the audience bobbed their heads to the snappy jazz rhythm, an eclectic group ranging from a matron dressed in a black sequined evening dress with matching handbag to a young woman in a vest and baggy jeans.

The song offers a lively look at how a good home-cooked meal could improve international affairs.

"After the chiefs have turned to gluttons, they'll be in no mood for pushing buttons," Smith sang. "They're gonna start putting all the bombs away, after the chitlins in the White House one day."

When Gales and Smith were done, some in the crowd stopped by to place money in the fishbowl on the piano bar. The experience of the last two years, he said, made him realize a simple truth.

"I saw that people from all walks of life care about me," he said. "You don't realize that pounding away at the piano night after night. (But) every now and then I realize that you do make a difference."

The Howlett Smith celebration is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. at Bob Burns, 202 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 393-6777. There will be no cover charge.

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