For half a century, Walt Smith kept the beat going in Aspen. Playing jazz piano at such fixtures as The Red Onion, The Golden Horn, The Hotel Jerome, The Tippler, The Copper Kettle and the Freddie Fisher room at Aspen Highlands, Walt inspired a generation of locals and visitors alike to jive to jazz, get out on the dance floor and have a good time. For those lucky enough to live in Aspen in the 50’s, 60’s 70’s and 80’s during Walt’s heyday, his music became their soundtrack.
Walt grew up in Denver, studying classical piano as a child. In 1950, before moving to Aspen permanently, Smith was invited to play a six-week-long gig for the opening of Steve Knowlton’s Golden Horn restaurant. In 1954, he moved his family to Aspen and after a short stint as owner of Aspen’s only bowling alley, he established himself as the premier jazz pianist in the Valley.
With his wife of 68 years, Carol, Smith raised four daughters in and around the Roaring Fork Valley from their first home in Aspen to a ranchette up the Frying Pan known today as Wally Dallenbach’s place. When he wasn’t tickling the ivories, Smith spent much of his leisure time in the summer sailing at Ruedi Reservoir. His family spent almost every weekend at the Aspen Yacht Club sailing, camping and hiking. Walt also loved tennis, bicycling and beach vacations in Mexico. By winter, Walt took to the ski slopes where he taught skiing at Aspen Highlands with classic Stein Eriksen style.
In the early to mid 1960’s, skiers were entertained by Smith at the piano bar at the base of Aspen Highlands followed by a longstanding gig as the house band at the Tippler in Aspen. It was then that he teamed up with popular local jazz drummer Bert Dahlander. The duo added bassist Koji Kataoka to their act and they became known as the Tippler’s Three.
Over the years Smith could be found performing at numerous community events including the popular Hospital Benefit Dinner in Aspen. While Aspen’s orthopedic surgeons strategically carved the roast beef, Smith would treat the local crowd to his style of smooth, jazzy swing.
In the early 1970’s Smith teamed up with novelist Leon Uris to write a musical play based on Uris’s book “Exodus.” Smith wrote all of the music for the play while Uris wrote the lyrics. The play called “Ari” was intended for Broadway but was only performed in Washington D.C.
During later years Smith could be found entertaining downvalley audiences at Werner Kuster’s Sopris Restaurant and the Buffalo Valley Inn outside of Glenwood Springs. His presence always attracted his loyal Aspen fans to these establishments,
Smith recorded several CDs over the years of his original music including a song he co-wrote with his daughter Leslie called “Love is All There Is.” A CD compilation of Walt’s favorite original songs, including some from the play Ari, will be released in the Spring of 2023. The CD is entitled “The Last Dance.”
Smith performed until nearly the day he died in 2018 at the age of 91.