Drummer Paul Tillman Smith was eighteen when he left his native Oakland with Sonny Simmons to make his mark in the New York jazz world. The gig soon fizzled, but Smith stuck around the Big Apple and played with such other avant-garde saxmen as Albert Ayler and Pharoah Sanders -- doing more rehearsals and jam sessions than paying engagements.
"I lasted about eight months," Smith reflects. "Somebody broke into my apartment twice and stole my drums. I caught him each time, but I knew I was gonna eventually lose my equipment 'cause I was too poor to move into a better environment."
Smith shared a Lower Manhattan apartment with another struggling avant-garde drummer -- Norman Connors -- and they made a pact that if one ever made it in the music business, he would help the other. "It's the buddy system," Smith explains.
Upon returning home, Smith put down his sticks and began focusing on writing commercial R&B tunes. "I knew I wasn't gonna make no money playin' that outside stuff," he says. Smith eventually resumed playing, with such jazzmen as John Handy and Bobby Hutcherson, and for the past three years has cohosted the Sunday jam session at Bluesville in Oakland with trumpeter Khalil Shaheed.
After Connors hit it big with "You Are My Starship" and other mid-'70s soul ballads, he produced an album for Buddah Records by Vitamin E, Smith's R&B band at the time, but it went nowhere -- except into the collections of connoisseurs of a genre now known as "rare groove." Smith had better luck when Connors featured Phyllis Hyman singing the Smith composition "As You Are" on a Pharoah Sanders album, and it became a Quiet Storm radio favorite. Smith and Connors served as coproducers of The Invisible Man by Smith's current soul group Park Place, just issued on Smith's Chump Change label. Much like Connors' own albums, the CD utilizes a different vocalist on virtually every track, Oakland R&B vet Freddie Hughes and the late Bonnie Boyer among them.
Connors is coming to town this Sunday to sit in with Park Place at the Berkeley Juneteenth Festival, for which Smith has booked the music since its inception sixteen years ago. Smith also will play with the Big Belly Blues Band, for which he produced a CD earlier this year. A jazz group led by Shaheed, Big Belly also features vocalist George Hubbard and bassist Harley White.
The free event is being held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Adeline Street between Alcatraz and Ashby, just around the corner from Smith's house. Others slated to perform include bluesman Little Junior Crudup and soul singer Rhonda Benin. Shaheed is in charge of the children's stage and is presenting his Oaktown Jazz Workshop and other youngsters.
Smith plans to play only a few numbers at the festival, leaving most of the stick work to James Levi of Park Place and Larry Vann of Big Belly. "I'm a writer, and I do other things in my mind," he explains. "There's certain drummers who all they do is think drums and play drums. I know they have an edge on me. Drummers love me when I call 'em."
Phone 510-655-8008 for further information.
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