Sax legend Smith earned his jazz degree performing with the greats

When Mike Smith takes the stage, his audience hears a Chicago jazz legend on the saxophone. What they may not see is that the show - the staging, the music, the life - has been influenced directly by the greats across generations.

Frank Sinatra. Cannonball Adderley. Charlie Parker. Even Barbra Streisand on his parents’ record player.

“Anytime you’re playing with headliners and icons, you learn something,” says Smith, the featured performer for next month’s Elkhart Jazz Festival Preview Party. “It’s like postgraduate work.”

Smith will join the Jim Catalano Trio from 1 to 3 p.m. Monday, June 4, in the downtown Crystal Ballroom. Presented by the Four Arts Club with special event sponsor jjBabbitt Co. and media sponsor The Hart, tickets to the party cost $30 and are available at

“From Buddy Rich and Frank, it was how they put shows together … even though it was completely different ends of the spectrum. From Maynard Ferguson, I saw how he featured different players. From listening to records of different players - (John) Coltrane and Charlie Parker - as a young player, I emulated that stuff.

“And when you get to be an old guy, you take all those dialects of music and form your own style.”

For 37 years, Smith has called Chicago home and had the standing Wednesday gig at the famous Andy’s Jazz Club. Prior to that, he worked in the Sinatra organization, a connection that blossomed through Buddy Rich.

Playing as the featured saxophonist for Sinatra was an incredible time, Smith says … especially for his mom.

“My parents loved the arts. They weren’t artists themselves, but it was always around. There was always a lot of music in the house, and I grew up listening to Frank and Streisand,” he says. “My parents were always supportive of my music. Before I even went to college, I knew (jazz) was what I wanted to do. And playing with Frank made my mom very happy.”

As a featured performer in his own right, Smith has served as the leader on about a dozen recordings. The 61-year-old also has worked in instrument development and as a college professor.

Smith will be reunited in Elkhart with percussionist Jim Catalano. The two used to travel the instrument sales circuit together, and have shared the stage several times, including some dates with Truth In Jazz.

“Jim’s a great musician, and we hit it off good,” Smith said. “That festival - they used to hire a bunch of different people and you’d just fit in and jam. I like their newer thing, bringing in featured bands. (As performers) we always like to have our groups with us.”

This year marks the fifth preview party hosted by the Four Arts Club. For nearly 75 years, the club has celebrated culture with enlightening and entertaining programming. Music, visual and performing arts, literature and the art of living are the focus, and the regular schedule of event resumes in August.