We cannot plan our life

Sitting down with nonagenarian pianist and jazz singer Juanita Cohen Smith, who has kept her audiences hypnotized for nearly eight decades

 JUANITA IN concert at Tel Aviv’s Beit Ha’amudim, August 2022. (photo credit: Yoel Levy Photography)
JUANITA IN concert at Tel Aviv’s Beit Ha’amudim, August 2022.
(photo credit: Yoel Levy Photography)

“We cannot plan our life, we can’t plan our day. We can only be grateful that it goes in a good way,” says Juanita Cohen Smith, a 90-year-old pianist and jazz and pop singer, in an interview with the Magazine. 

When she starts to perform, she takes the audience to an entirely different level of music, to the aura of New York clubs of the bygone jazz era. She loves life and people; she is a charismatic person; and after her shows, people go up to her and thank her for inspiring them. 

Smith was born in New York City to a family of immigrants with Falashan (Ethiopian Jewish), Cuban, Jamaican and Syrian roots. She was trained as a classical pianist in the best schools, but as a teenager on her way home from piano classes she discovered jazz and the sound and atmosphere of supper clubs, where the audience was much closer to the musicians. She was hooked for life.

In the 1950s, her career took off when she joined Jimmie Butts, a jazz double-bass musician. For 12 years they toured as the “Jimmy Butts Duo featuring Juanita” act, performing all over the US and Canada. 

Smith also formed her own groups – duo, trios and quartets. With one-woman shows, she performed in the US, Canada, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Israel, France and Switzerland. She opened concerts for Louis Armstrong and all the big artists in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. She has traveled the world with music and chose Israel as her home.

 JUANITA IN concert at Tel Aviv’s Beit Ha’amudim, August 2022. (credit: Yoel Levy Photography) JUANITA IN concert at Tel Aviv’s Beit Ha’amudim, August 2022. (credit: Yoel Levy Photography)

She met legends of the musical world such as Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. Now, to many, she is a legend herself.

“It’s good to be alive!” That’s how you answer your phone and how you welcome the audience to your concerts. It immediately leans toward good energy. 

Because I am really blessed to be alive – and all my life to do what I love: music!

Until COVID-19, you traveled with concerts all over the world. This summer, you have shows in bars in Tel Aviv; you are a busy person. Thank you for rescheduling your swim this morning and finding time for me. How do you usually start your day?

I practice on the piano for an hour a day. When I stay in Tel Aviv, I play on my own piano in the lobby of a Maxim hotel in Tel Aviv. I donated the piano to the hotel over 30 years ago. I brought it from New York.

On the Facebook page of the hotel, there is a video of you and your friends during your birthday jam session from 2019. It is written that you are not only a returning guest but a member of the hotel’s family. Other guests of the hotel had a special surprise of hearing you play in the lobby. The hotel must feel lucky to have you.

I connected with this place many years ago. I played in most of the hotels in Israel. For many years I played at the famous – at the time – Neptune hotel in Eilat. And while I was having shows in big hotels in Tel Aviv, one day I came here and I liked the atmosphere. I decided this would be my place in Tel Aviv and I donated the piano, which I received from my father in 1947. It is now dedicated to his memory.

Who was your first piano teacher?

My mother, Evelyn, who was an opera singer; a soprano. Later, I had two private teachers. My parents also sent me to very good schools in Jamaica, New York (New York School of Music and Art, and the Juilliard School), and Milan (La Scala Music Conservatory).

How old were you when you had your first concert?

At age 15, I think. My concert was in 1947. I was born in 1932, on February 4. My mother was the guest star. 

You keep your archives with you. Amazing! Your mother was an opera singer, you studied classical piano. How did you discover jazz? Did your parents listen to it as well?

Jazz was played everywhere, but it was not a part of my parents’ music style. I found it myself as a teenager. Walking home from my piano classes, I heard jazz in bars and clubs [in New York]. Instead of going straight home, I would stop by jazz rehearsals. Sometimes they let me join.

Did you hear of anyone famous from that time?

All the famous names. And that’s how I met my musical partner, Jimmie Butts. He was on the bass in a duo with a pianist, but they became overworked. The other musician was constantly at the telephone booth on the corner listening to other musicians on the phone and writing music for them. So he couldn’t play two shows a day. And there was my chance. We became an act called Jimmy Butts Duo featuring Juanita. At that time, people were playing at the supper clubs [restaurants with live music]. Jilly’s [Jilly’s Saloon] was where Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett performed. We opened the concerts for all the big stars of the era, such as Louis Armstrong, whenever they needed us. We also played in the ‘Jewish Alps’ resorts of the Catskill Mountains.

You toured around the US and Canada with Jimmie Butts for more than 12 years. This duo gave the direction of your career.

It changed my life. And Jimmie was always very protective of me. When men saw me in his company, they didn’t hit on me. I was very young, a ‘brown girl from a Jewish home,’ and I was a tomboy.

A tomboy? In all these pictures you look like a movie star, like a real lady!

On the stage, you had to look elegant. Also, as a child, my mother would dress me and my sisters in nice dresses and ribbons and bows in our hair. But inside, I was a tomboy.

And that tomboy performed with the legends of music. Did you ever meet Billie Holiday? I fell in love with her voice when I was 15.

Yes, I did. She had a very unusual voice and the way she was selling the stories with her tone. She had a painful life that I cannot imagine… She was not my favorite singer, but she amazed me. I knew her. I was part of a group of musicians who played with her in the concerts (I never played with her directly). She always had a special flower in her hair…

She was known as “Lady Day.” I wrote an essay about her when I was in high school, and I remember reading that she never took an encore. She would end the concert and leave the stage. Did you witness that?

Yes, she did that. I remember that the last time I had a chance to speak to her it was on 7th Avenue, 150th street, or 126th…

You remember the streets! Was there anything that she told you, to the young girl starting out in music?

No, she didn’t. But I want to say that meeting people like Billie, for me, was like a movie in life.

Just like for me listening to your memories now.

I was very fortunate. When you do music, you don’t have any ill feelings toward each other. Your compliment is your next show. I managed to maintain a living thanks to my music all my life.

When did you decide what genre of music you wanted to do? After the duo with Butts?

It was determined by the times. I sang pop, all the popular songs. In the 1950s and ’60s, all the people were singing pop. It’s almost like doing a Broadway show. Ella Fitzgerald sang mostly jazz, but it was pop, too – popular songs. And I was blessed that I was working through agents, so I didn’t have to break my neck to find work. I had contracts, and I belonged to the International Musicians Union, as of now.

How did your parents react to your career choice, far from the classical education you received? 

My parents were just grateful that I lived because I was a child from an incubator. And that I played music. There were four of us. We all learned music. But my siblings moved into other fields.

When did you visit Israel for the first time?

I came with my family for a bar mitzvah. Our relatives wanted to celebrate it in Israel. It was during the Six Day War. My family went back to the US, and I stayed because I wanted to meet the local musicians. And I played concerts for a while in Tel Aviv. I did also some shows for the army, to support them. At that time there were blitzes and rockets, just like recently [Operation Breaking Dawn].

So it was not an easy start. Did you get used to sirens and rocket alarms after all these years in Israel?

Life is a blitz, it makes no difference, with or without the alarms. And we can get used to anything in life; just have to keep busy and continue to live. 

We should all remember that. Back then, did you think you would stay in Israel for good?

To be honest I didn’t think about it. When you are an artist, you are moving around the world, you are only interested in what you are doing at that moment. What happens after time, it is only written after. You are not interested in planning to write a biography. I played in all the hotels in Israel; some of them are not here any longer. 

And you are here. Still performing. 

And I am here. You never know in life what can happen. For example, I met my husband through my future father-in-law (a Holocaust survivor), who was a violinist. He made the shidduch when I was playing in Haifa. I was on and off in the country, and he connected me with my future husband, Walter Cohen, so he would hold me in here. [laughs]

Do you remember the first date? 

Yes, it was beautiful, but I will not go into details. He was very handsome; born in Germany, and an Israeli military person. The ironic part was that his family didn’t think that I was Jewish at the beginning, because I was brown. We dated for some time. He accepted that I was not interested at first in getting married. I was over 30 years old, he was five years older than me. When you have a career, it is more important than starting a family. I was happy to adopt his children. But I had no intention to take a break from my music. And he respected it, loved me, and encouraged me in my career.

That’s beautiful… And you lived in Eilat or Tel Aviv during those years?

No, we lived in Haifa. In Tel Aviv, I had my own apartment. 

When did you begin to feel that your home was in Israel, not the US?

When I met my husband. I packed my apartment and my piano into the container and shipped them here. It was nice to have an apartment in Brooklyn; my husband and I would stay there when we went to visit the family. But then we decided to move it all to Israel. If he would not have been so lovely, maybe I would not have done it. But he was the only man in my life. And having my career all over the world, my home was where he was. We were together until he closed his eyes one day, in 1983.

And after – did you stay in Israel? 

For a while; then I went back to Switzerland, to play concerts (on and off for 30 years or so). But I kept my home here, in Israel, so I was coming back here. The last time I had concerts in Switzerland was just before COVID-19.

Do you still play classical music? And if so, what is the difference in feeling, in playing Chopin and Ellington?

To feel is to sell. To sell is to get out the feeling of what you have inside. To me, it doesn’t matter if it is jazz, pop or classical music.

Who is your favorite composer who you like to play? 

All. There is not just one. When you study a piece and you create what you want to get across as what the man wrote, it is your interpretation. Even playing Mozart, you interpret what he wrote. And you find [the way] closest to him, to his sound and intonation. You must try your best, because you are a vessel; through you the person’s [composer’s] name is maintained.

This is a big responsibility. 

Not only responsibility. This is your duty. But coming back to the freedom of Ellington – many interpreted jazz in their own way. Not many succeeded in taking across not just the melody, but the feeling. The same with Mozart. 

Did you ever write your own music?

No. I studied theory [of composition] at school; how to write it. But I was never interested in it because it took too long.

I heard you for the first time at Beit Ha’amudim, a jazz club in Tel Aviv, in 2018. Recently, we met in the audience at Arte [an Italian ice cream place in Tel Aviv], on a Thursday jazz night, and I looked at you and to my surprise, you asked me: ‘Where have we met before?’ Do you look at the public during your concerts?

Sometimes I do. [Smiles]

That July evening, this year, you spontaneously joined the musicians; you took us all to an entirely different world. The sound of your voice and the piano is magical. Magic was also the impact you have on people. After the concert, young people were coming to you, thanking you for the inspiration you gave them. 

I am happy to have a chance to speak to people of any age. We have lost so much in our souls due to a lack of interest and loss of direction. You’ve got to be grateful, happy, and take care of yourself so that you can share it with someone else. And I am blessed because all my life, I do what I love. But I will be honest with you, we artists are often abused because we have that something that makes our clock tick.

What do you mean by “abused”? 

Abused by people who are not happy with what you do, how you do [it], how you speak. They want to take your sunshine away – I use that term. And we must keep what we were given. God gave me this talent and I use it all my life. I practiced even this morning for one hour because you should not take anything for granted. I started to have osteoporosis, and the doctors in Eilat [the place of residency] don’t want to do anything about it, saying that I am old. I am 90, but I am not old. But even if I was, you are never too old to do what you love, maintain your body, your mind, your spirit, and what God blessed you with. You are never too old. And we cannot plan our life, we can’t plan our day. We can only be grateful that it goes in a good way. So I am grateful to be alive.

And I am so grateful that you agreed to share all of it with me. 

Dziekuje [thank you – Juanita replied in Polish. She then sat at the piano and played and sang for me.] ■