Cliff Smalls

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Clifton Arnold (3 March 1918 – 2008), better known as Cliff Smalls,[1] was an American jazz trombonist, pianist, conductor and arranger who worked in the jazz, soul and rhythm & blues genres.[2][3]


Smalls was raised in Charleston, South Carolina.[3] His father, a carpenter, performed piano and organ for Charleston's Central Baptist Church. He taught Smalls classical music at an early age.[2]

He spent his later years in Brooklyn, New York.[4]

Professional career[edit]

Jazz, early years of Bebop[edit]

Smalls left Charleston with the Carolina Cotton Pickers[1][5] but his career coincided with the early years of Bebop. From 1942 to 1946 he was a trombonist, arranger and also backup piano-player for band-leader and pianist Earl Hines, alongside Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker, also then in the Hines band which often broadcast seven nights a week on open mikes coast-to-coast across America.[3] Hines also used Teddy Wilson, Jess Stacy and Nat "King" Cole as backup piano-players but Smalls was his favorite. Smalls also played in the Jimmie Lunceford and Erskine Hawkins bands.[2]

Singers, popular direction, return to jazz roots[edit]

After the inevitable post-World War II break-up of the Hines big-band, Smalls went on to play and record in smaller ensembles with his former Earl Hines band colleagues, singer and band-leader Billy Eckstine, trombonist Bennie Green, saxophonist Earl Bostic and singer Sarah Vaughan. In 1949 he recorded with JJ Johnson and Charlie Rouse.[6] Smalls was the pianist on Earl Bostic's 1950 hit 'Flamingo' [along with John Coltrane] but had a serious automobile accident, with Earl Bostic, in 1951[7] "... so I laid in bed all of 1952, til March of 1953".[8]

Recovering, Smalls shifted his musical career to serve as music director/arranger for singers Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, Jr., Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Clyde McPhatter, Roy Hamilton and Brook Benton. He recorded Bennie Green with Art Farmer[9] in 1956 and was, for many years, a regular with Sy Oliver's nine-piece "Little Big-Band" including, from 1974-1984, a regular stint in New York's Rainbow Room.[2][3][10]

In the 1970s Smalls returned to jazz-recording, including four solo tracks for The Complete Master Jazz Piano Series[11] in 1970, with Sy Oliver in 1973,[12] Texas Twister with Buddy Tate in 1975, Swing and Things in 1976[13] and 'Caravan' in France in 1978.[14]

In 1980 Smalls was featured playing piano in The Cotton Club, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.


  1. ^ a b Feather, Leonard and Ira Gitler. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz
  2. ^ a b c d Jazz Initiative "Smalls, 'Cliff' Clifton"
  3. ^ a b c d Chadbourne, Eugene Allmusic biography
  4. ^ Jack McCray, "For a Jazz Pianist, Jones Really Fiddles," The Post and Courier - May 29, 2006
  5. ^ Smalls also recorded with them, for instance 'Off and on Blues' and 'Deed I Do' (arranged by Smalls and also featuring Cat Anderson) in 1937, when Smalls was 19
  6. ^ Early Bones, Prestige 24067
  7. ^ 'Bandleader Earl Bostic made a $14,000 out-of-court settlement on a suit that his ex-piano player, Cliff Smalls, filed against him for injuries sustained in an auto accident four years ago": Jet [magazine] 7 Nov 1957
  8. ^ The Jazz Artist, Vol III No 1 1999: interview with Sue Terry
  9. ^ with Bennie Green, Art Farmer and Philly Joe Jones New Jersey April 13, 1956
  10. ^ The New York Times: Sy Oliver obituary May 28, 1988
  11. ^ Mosaic MR6 140
  12. ^ Yes Indeed Black & Blue NIG-48404
  13. ^ By the Cliff Smalls Septet Swaggie Records/'The Jazz Makers' & also Master Jazz MJR8131
  14. ^ The Definitive Black & Blue Sessions with Leonard Gaskin & Oliver Jackson BB 935-2