As a public health precaution due to COVID-19, all Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are temporarily closed to the public as of Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. We are not announcing a reopening date at this time.
Willie "The Lion" Smith was a jazz pianist, songwriter, and raconteur at the center of the vibrant New York music scene for a half century. At first a successful ragtime pianist on the East Coast, Smith fought in World War I with the famous Harlem Hellfighters division. In the 1920s The Lion, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller formed an unholy trinity of New York City pianist-composers who created the tempo and dances of the time. Duke Ellington apprenticed to his musical leadership and stride style, and a young George Gershwin absorbed jazz sitting under Smith’s piano at Harlem rent parties. The Lion evoked his time in several later records and in his memoir, Music on My Mind (1964). His style is ingrained in jazz iconography, as can be seen here: relaxed at the piano in his trademark derby and with his cigar, he awaits the night’s crowd and warms up the keyboard.