Courtney Isaiah Smith, co-founder of Utah’s Jazz Vespers Quartet, dies at 37

The pianist was known for jazz performances, but he was also the pianist at Calvary Baptist Church.

(Photo courtesy of David Halliday) Courtney Isaiah Smith, seen in 2017 at a performance at Gracie's in Salt Lake City. Smith, a co-founder of the Jazz Vespers Quartet and a beloved performer in Utah's music scene, died Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, at age 37.

Courtney Isaiah Smith, a pianist who was a beloved fixture in Utah’s music scene from nightclubs to church, has died at age 37.

Smith died Monday, Jan. 25, from complications of COVID-19 and other health issues.

“This is a massive loss to the musical community in Utah,” said saxophonist and bandmate David Halliday. “The gospel community, the jazz community, pop music — Courtney was everywhere. His reach was massive.”

Smith “was the most gentle and humble and kind person,” Halliday said. “He had an almost childlike humility and kindness. Pure, like no ego. He wanted to serve the music and share in the joy of musical connection and friends.”

Drummer Steve Lyman, a friend since they were in band class together at East High School, said Smith “was so good at music, and he was so good at just being a great human.”

In 2009, Smith and Halliday took over as musical directors of the long-running Jazz Vespers concert series at Salt Lake City’s First Unitarian Church, and kept the series going through 2018.

Halliday said he and Smith revamped the Jazz Vespers shows, set on eight consecutive Sundays at the end of the year, to be tributes to musical legends — Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Prince, the Beatles and so on — with a regular quartet: Smith, Halliday, bassist Denson Angulo and drummer Steve Lyman. Lyman later moved to New York, and Parker Swenson took over on the drums.

“He was the best musician in the world,” Lyman said from New York. “If Courtney wasn’t on the gig, there wasn’t a lot of other people I’d rather play with in town. I think I’ve played, like, a thousand gigs with him. He could play anything that his ears could hear.”

Halliday recalled that before one Jazz Vespers, when the band was going to play songs by Stevie Wonder, Halliday presented Smith with a recording of Herbie Hancock’s arrangement of Wonder’s hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You.”

“I was curious about some of the chords, and I thought, ‘I’ll just take these over to Courtney’s house and he can help me figure out what these chords are,’” Halliday said. “I just sat in amazement while Courtney just listened to it, and he wrote them down. And he never even touched a piano. … Then we performed it, and it was perfect.”

In July 2014, the Jazz Vespers Quartet — the name stuck, even after the concert series ended — was hired as the house band for Gracie’s, a bar in downtown Salt Lake City. That gig lasted through March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bars and live venues.

Among the many bands in which Smith performed was The Mix, a jazz-fusion combo in which he backed up his girlfriend, vocalist Jazmin “Jazzy” Olivo.

Halliday marveled at Smith’s musical skills, and the breadth of his knowledge.

“Gospel, classical, jazz, pop — he had all of these styles down,” Halliday said. “He was also coming at music from this classical point of view, analyzing it that way. This guy’s a musical genius. Plus he could sing — like Ray Charles or Sam Cooke or Michael Jackson or Prince.”

The gospel knowledge came from childhood, growing up in the congregation of Salt Lake City’s Calvary Baptist Church. Smith started playing music at the church when he was 6. He joined the church at age 12, and eventually became its primary pianist.

Smith was “very versed in gospel music, contemporary and traditional,” said Dr. Oscar T. Moses, senior pastor at Calvary Baptist. “Courtney could play anything. He could go from country-western to playing the ‘Charlie Brown’ theme song in a minute.”

Courtney Isaiah Smith was born Dec. 30, 1983, in Salt Lake City, to Carolyn E. and Shelley O. Smith. He began playing piano at age 3, playing by ear with his right hand until an uncle showed him how to play with his left.

Smith graduated from East High School, where he and Lyman were in band class. He went on to study composition at the University of Utah, where he and Halliday performed in the university’s jazz combo.

He taught music lessons privately, and was an adjunct professor of jazz studies at Utah State University, Weber State University, the University of Utah, and most recently at Westminster College.

When Smith was ill, Moses said he recommended a verse of scripture, Hebrews 4:16: “Let us, therefore, come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may attain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Smith is survived by his mother, Carolyn E. Smith; his girlfriend, Jazmin Olivo; his brothers, Michael Wesley and Jonathan Strother; his grandfather, Lloyd M. Bass; his aunts Zenobia Smith, Della Johnson and Natasha Bass; and many uncles, cousins and loved ones. His father, Shelley O. Smith, died in 2018.

A private burial will take place Saturday, Feb. 6, at 11 a.m. The services will be live-streamed on the Starks Funeral Parlor website, starksfuneral.com.