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Artist Stories

A Bartender’s Story with a Twist: Profile of JP

Written by Barbara Birge, photo by Carter Wade

July 2020 — How many times have we heard Lonnie say, “Jazz makes you thirsty. So feel free to go to the bar even in the middle of a song, and John will take care of you.”

John, aka, JP/John-Palmer Smith, will indeed take care of you, and you know you’ll be served with masterful finesse. But how many of us know John — the ever-affable bartender who’s as generous with his smile as with his pours?

Many in Charlotte know him well. For the rest of us, there’s a lot to learn. John is a man of many talents in the truest sense.

Growing up on a farm in Oklahoma, he loved two things: riding horses and playing the piano. The latter led him to the University of Oklahoma, where he discovered a love of the pipe organ and majored in organ performance with a minor in church music. He went on to receive his master’s degree at University of Louisville, and as fate would have it, was hired as associate minister of music and organist at Charlotte’s Pritchard Memorial Baptist.

A few years later, he accepted a job as recitalist for Allen Organ Company, traveling the Southeast to perform inaugural recitals for churches that purchased its instruments. But as for so many musicians, he needed a side hustle to make ends meet. Bartending was the perfect gig that gave him the freedom to travel and perform as needed.

The first male bartender hired at the old Charlotte airport, he broke the mold exclusively occupied there by women bartenders in French maid attire. Fortunately for us, John fell in love with bartending. And fortunately for him, another twist of fate awaited when the new airport was built. As the least senior of the airport’s bartenders, John was given the low-status Piedmont concourse to set up his bar. Of course, that airline soon took off and came to dominate Charlotte-Douglas.

John’s love of making people happy and his ability to manage a very busy bar led to years of success at the airport. But fate had more in mind. Shortly after performing an inaugural organ concert for St. Andrew’s Methodist here in Charlotte, he looked up to find that Methodist church’s minister sitting at his airport bar. Given his previous tenure at a Baptist church, this was a shock to say the least. But this pastor had the advantage that his denomination would allow for such a visit. He talked John into what was supposedly a temporary gig as church organist on the condition that he’d end Sunday services in time for John to get to the airport by 1:00 p.m. to open his bar. For the next 13 years, John built an expansive music program and eventually gave up bartending, except for doubling as choir director and bartender for no-doubt gleeful choristers.

After St. Andrews, John shared his talents with the congregations of First Methodist in Uptown and Davidson United Methodist over the course of nearly 20 years. In those positions, he helped contribute to the development of Urban Ministry Center and co-led numerous choir tours abroad. On retiring in 2009, he continued his travels until he felt it was time for something else.

Who could be a better fit for Blumenthal Performing Arts than a highly accomplished performer/bartender? For nearly a decade now, John has been on staff. And as we all know, his welcoming smile is a big part of what makes THE JAZZ ROOM THE JAZZ ROOM. Now we also know that if a pianist doesn’t show up some evening, we might look no further than John’s bar for someone to sit in — albeit playing Bach instead of Brubeck.

John says he’s loved every job he’s ever had. Perhaps that capacity for joy is his greatest talent of all and the reason his smile is so big. On furlough now with other Blumenthal staff, he tends his truly amazing koi pond and reads in the shade of his garden with his pup Boomer by his side. He misses THE JAZZ ROOM. We miss you, too, John. Here’s to when we’ll be together again.

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