The crowd roars as a pianist starts playing a loping swing groove. Then, a trumpet player begins a solo, his impressive wails echoing around a cavernous venue — the 82,300-person-capacity Croke Park Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. When he begins singing the 1944 standard “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You,” spectators cheer again, this time in recognition. Those details, that enthusiasm, would suggest a bootleg from one of the many massive jazz concerts and festivals of the 1940s or ‘50s — but there’s a crispness to the sound that makes that impossible. In fact, it was recorded in 2018.
“For me, it’s always a weird situation when people say, ‘Oh, nobody likes jazz; Nobody shows up to jazz concerts,’” says that trumpeter, whose name is Jumaane Smith. He recorded “You’re Nobody till Somebody Loves You” for his new album “When You’re Smiling” live with Michael Bublé’s band — Smith has played for the singer for the past 15 years — and it’s one of probably single-digit jazz recordings in recent memory on which you can hear the fervor of a stadium-sized crowd.
“We’re playing to 20,000 to 50,000 people a night, and half the show or more is just straight up big-band jazz,” says Smith of what’s hopefully a not-too-distant memory by the time Bublé his the road again (the “An Evening With Michael Buble” tour, scheduled to pick up in May, has been postponed). Buble, he adds, “is essentially outside of the jazz world, but has fans that appreciate that old-school, more popular form of jazz.”
Smith is hoping to reach some of those same fans with “When You’re Smiling,” which features him singing and playing on a collection of nine standards and one original, entitled “Sweet Baby.” The song selections were partially inspired by three of Smith’s biggest influences, all of whom happen to share a first name: Louis Armstrong, Louis Jordan and Louis Prima. Those three Louises all happened to be instrumentalists (Armstrong and Prima played trumpet, while Jordan played saxophone) who also led bands and sang — like Smith.
“I wanted to try to create something that was modern but still paid homage to that classic legacy,” he says. “The metric modulations, and the complex harmonies and melodies that you can’t really sing — that stuff doesn’t generally appeal to me as much as the things you can sing. They bring out feelings of joy, or sadness or angst. The beauty of these songs is that the sentiments are just as true today as they ever have been.”
Even beyond his career with Bublé (where he’s still considered one of the new guys, the trumpeter deadpans), Smith has the top tier jazz bona fides to match almost any of his more outré counterparts. He grew up in Seattle, where he attended Roosevelt High School, home to one of the city’s two nationally-renowned high school jazz bands. Smith studied with trumpeter Floyd Standifer, an alum of Seattle legend Quincy Jones’ band, and would eventually tour with Jones himself. He attended Juilliard, where he studied with none other than Wynton Marsalis — and first became interested in singing.
“He told me that the best way to really connect with a song is to understand the lyrics,” Smith says. “So I started to learn the lyrics to these standards, and to sing them. Now, my voice influences the way that I play the trumpet, and the trumpet sort of influences my voice as well. All the technical stuff — changing vibrato, or the character of your tone — becomes way more obvious when you don’t have an instrument to hide behind. In that way, [singing] sort of taught me how to have a stronger approach with the trumpet.”
It also suited his flair for jazz’s more old-school pop side — which happens, if Bublé’s tens of millions of albums cords sold are any indication, to also often be a crowd-pleasing one. Smith points to a quote from Miles Davis’ autobiography: “I have always wanted to reach as many people as I could through my music,” Davis wrote. “And I have never been ashamed of that.”
“People have taken this approach to jazz, like, ‘I’m in it for myself,’” Smith adds. “But at a certain point you alienate yourself so much from your fans that they disappear. Personally, I feel like I want to entertain my audience. Take them on a trip away from whatever it is they’re dealing with. Provide some joy, some love, some happiness in their life for what little time we have together.”
He hasn’t ruled out the possibility of making a record more in line with those by progressive jazz artists that stack up critical accolades while sometimes struggling to attract fans — much less stadium-sized crowds. In fact, Smith is connected with one of the more popular movements in progressive jazz today, spearheaded by his longtime friend and collaborator saxophonist Kamasi Washington. He’s played extensively with Washington, and more recently with his trombone player Ryan Porter.
“It’s just interesting how the beat has changed,” says Smith. “Both [pianist Robert Glasper] and Kamasi are playing jazz that has a backbeat, that’s more fusion or funk or hip-hop influenced. it connects more with younger people at this point, because most people don’t grow up hearing that swing groove these days. When they hear it, it’s almost foreign to them.”
There’s still plenty of swing to be had, though, when Bublé and his band come to town to bring their version of jazz to the masses. “You know how some people jump out of airplanes to get their kicks, or go bungee jumping, or go on roller coasters?” Smith asks. “That’s what soloing in front of all those people is for me. The stakes are so high — it’s such an awesome feeling and when it hits, there’s nothing really like it.”