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Willie "The Lion" Smith

With his derby and cigar, along with his command of counterpoint and swing, Willie “The Lion” Smith was one of the jazz world's outsized characters. Bravery during World War I earned him his nickname; friendship and mutual admiration led to Duke Ellington's “Portrait of The Lion” and Smith's own “Portrait of Duke.”

William Henry Joseph Bonaparte Bertholoff was born in Goshen, N.Y., on Nov. 25, 1897. Growing up in Newark, he began playing at age 6, drawn to the piano by his mother's playing in church. His father's Jewish ancestry later led to work as a cantor, he claimed, during the '40s. In 1916, Willie enlisted in the Army where he became the drum major for his unit. During World War I, he spent over a month on the front lines, where he earned his name “The Lion” for his bravery.

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