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Every day, health officials, politicians and journalists pour over updated numbers meant to shed light on the COVID-19 pandemic in Utah. But each statistic represents a person — including each number in the death count. In the past nine months, hundreds of Utahns have lost their lives due to the disease. As 2020 comes to a close, KUER is remembering the lives of a few of them.

More Than A Number: Remembering Courtney Isaiah Smith

An illustration of Courtney Isaiah Smith sitting at a keyboard and singing into a microphone.
Renee Bright
Beloved Salt Lake City musician Courtney Isaiah Smith, who died on Jan. 25 at the age of 37. He’s one of more than 1,700 Utahns who have died from COVID-19.

By all accounts, Courtney Isaiah Smith was a musical genius. He played the piano and was well known in Utah’s music community. But Smith died Jan. 25 at the age of 37 from COVID-19.

Candido Abeyta is a saxophonist who often performed with Smith. He described a time they played at the Utah State Fairpark. The song “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars had just come out, and someone requested they play it.

“He was listening to [“Uptown Funk”] on his phone, and he just listened to it once and he goes, ‘Cool, got it,’” Abeyta said. “And I was like, ‘Really?’ That's when he told me, ‘Yeah man, I got perfect pitch.’ Sure enough, we played the song for this crowd. And that was with most songs.”

Abeyta said he was a little intimidated by Smith’s talent. But he said he “was just the biggest sweetheart.”

A photo of Courtney Smith playing the keyboard and wearing a shirt with Martin Luther King Jr. on it.
Lex B. Anderson
Courtney Smith’s partner, Jazmin Olivo, said he was an activist. Last year’s protests against racial injustice inspired him to make music.

“The level of genius and kindness from that man, it's going to be missed for sure,” he said. “There's a very big hole that's left, a really big wound right now in the music community.”

Smith was the pianist for Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. He also taught music lessons and was a jazz piano instructor at Westminster College.

David Halliday, Smith’s friend and colleague, recommended him for the job at Westminster.

“Courtney was so knowledgeable and approached jazz through his gospel roots and his academic background in classical music, so his perception of modern music was unique,” Halliday said. “Any time we would engage in musical discussions I would learn a tremendous amount, but at some point his genius-level knowledge of the music would kick in and he would lose me.”

Jazmin “Jazzy” Olivo was Smith’s partner and bandmate. Their band, The Mix, fuses together different musical styles.

She said that also described their relationship.

“We are completely the opposite of people,” Olivo said. “I’m loud and passionate, and he was more quiet, more thoughtful, more creative, but in a very introspective way.”
When the pandemic hit, Olivo said she and Smith tried to be extra careful because he had Type 1 diabetes. As entertainers, they were also worried about COVID-19’s impact on their incomes.

Olivo said last year was also difficult for them as a “couple of color.” She said protests against racial injustice inspired Smith to make music.

“He created a song for the situation with George Floyd because that hit him really hard,” she said. “Courtney was an activist, and he was very open about political, social and economical situations.”

 A  photo of Jazmin “Jazzy” Olivo and Courtney Smith.
Lex B. Anderson
Jazmin “Jazzy” Olivo and Courtney Smith were bandmates and also in a relationship.

Olivo and Smith were together for five years. During that time, they visited her home in the Dominican Republic. They also liked to watch reality TV to relax, and Olivo said they were working on an album together.

After he died, Olivo found a list of his plans for the next five years.

“One of his goals was ‘Write something, be it a song or an album, that in some way will change music for the better,’” she said. “That was goal number 12 out of 13. His last one was ‘Be in a place and state of mind worthy of marrying Jazmin.’ So, yeah, that was him. That was him right there.”

Excellence in the Community provided the audio from Courtney Smith’s performances.

Emily Means is a government and politics reporter at KUER.
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