Between 1920 and 1940, few pianists achieved the mythological status of Willie “The Lion” Smith. Along with James P. Johnson (from New Brunswick, NJ) and “Fats” Waller, he created the virtuosic piano style known as Harlem stride. The Lion was also a bigger than life character: war hero, composer of over 200 songs, raconteur, cantor at a Harlem Synagogue, and mentor to Duke Ellington and Dr. Billy Taylor. Meet the master in this hour-long Emmy-winning film created by State of the Arts producer Marc Fields in 2001. Willie “The Lion” Smith grew up on Academy Street in Newark, NJ, immersed in Newark’s diverse musical culture; he played frequently in its jazz clubs throughout his career.
Interviews with Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Amiri Baraka, Billy Taylor and Willie “The Lion” himself, along with some remarkable archival film footage make this a must-see film for all jazz and music lovers. Narrated by Joe Morton. Willie the Lion Smith’s name was added to the ASCAP Wall of Fame as a result of this film.