Musician Lew Smith is a revered veteran of the jazz world and has made significant musical contributions to the Australian and British jazz scenes throughout his career. With over six decades as a self-taught professional and semi-professional musician, Lew is a stalwart of the Perth jazz community.
Lew was born in 1930 in Pickering, North Yorkshire. Surrounded by music as a child, he joined his father’s band as a drummer by the age of 12. The young musician spent a few years on the drums before realising that he was more suited to being a “melody man”, and after his father bought him a saxophone at the age of 15, there was no looking back.
Lew was called up for national service in the Royal Air Force in 1948, and after being told that he could be a cook or a policeman, he said “well, I can play the saxophone.” After an audition, he was offered a position with a military band stationed in Henlow, Bedfordshire. Lew spent two years completing his national service and frequented jazz clubs in London during his downtime.
After finishing his service in 1950, Lew found his first job as a professional musician on a passenger ship travelling between Southampton and New York City. He spent six months playing with the ship’s orchestra and saw many of the jazz greats perform during his time in New York, including Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. The period had a profound influence on Lew.
When Lew returned to England he continued to pursue music and accepted a position with the highly successful Teddy Foster Band. He was thrown into regular radio broadcasts and shows, and met his wife June at at Butlin’s holiday camp in 1951. June was a member of the all-girl orchestra Ivy Benson, and the two were married within a year, beginning a lifetime of playing music together. For the next four years, Lew performed with successful groups including the Johnny Dankworth Orchestra and the Eric Winstone Band. Around 1956, he accepted the position of lead alto saxophonist in the esteemed London Palladium Orchestra. He worked seven days a week and performed as part of a televised variety program on Sunday nights. Lew spent some time with the orchestra, but the unforgiving schedule lead to a need for change in the late 1950s.
Yearning for warmer shores, Lew, June and their three children travelled to Melbourne on the Ten Pound Scheme, and Lew once again took on a position with the military as a musician in Melbourne’s RAAF Central Band. He spent just six months in the job, leaving the structured regimes of the military to spend a year performing within the artistic hubs of Melbourne’s theatres.
In 1962, he accepted a position with the Education Department to teach music. A few years later, Lew and June joined a pop band called Maximum Load, with June on vocals and Lew on saxophone. They spent three years performing together and earned chart success with a song called Riding Through the Dandenong Ranges. During that time, Lew spent his days completing a Librarianship Degree and began to lecture in librarian studies.
In 1973, a librarian conference in Perth was the catalyst for another change: Lew and his family packed up in 1974 and moved to Perth. Both Lew and June quickly picked up work as jazz musicians, and Lew took on a job at the Education Department. Lew began to perform with different bands at the Perth Jazz Society, and Lew and June soon formed a jazz band called June Smith and the Apple Band. Later, both Lew and June would win Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Perth Jazz Society.
After cementing his place in the WA jazz scene, Lew was approached by The Sunday Times to write a jazz column, which he did for 10 years, interviewing and reviewing local and visiting musicians, including Nat King Cole. He also took on a job lecturing in jazz practice and theory at Edith Cowan University. In the early 1990s, Lew formed a versatile quartet for Musica Viva, taking an interactive jazz program to schools across Western Australia. The program ran successfully for six years.
In 1992, Lew helped to found Jazz Fremantle, a club that still meets every Sunday afternoon. Lew is the only surviving founding committee member and still acts as the Vice President and Master of Ceremonies.
Lew Smith retired from teaching music in 1995 and continues to perform as a band member and leader on saxophone, clarinet and flute.