Born in Sacramento, California, in 1926, William O. Smith began playing the clarinet at the age of ten. In his teens, he initiated the dual life that he has followed ever since: leading a jazz orchestra while also performing with the Oakland Symphony: after high school and a year "on the road" traveling with various bands, he attended Juilliard during the day while playing jazz clubs at night.
Smith studied composition with Darius Milhaud at Mills College in 1946 and with Roger Sessions at the University of California at Berkeley, recieving B.A. and M.A degrees from that school in 1950 and 1952. He also attended classes at the Paris Conservatory (1952-53) and the Juilliard Institute (1957-58). His awards include a Prix de Paris, the Phelan Award, a Prix de Rome, A Fromm Players Fellowship , a National Academy of Arts and Letters Award, a BMI Jazz Pioneer Award, a BMI Jazz Pioneer Award, and two Guggenheims. He taught at the University of California, Berkeley, the San Francisco Conservatory, and the University of Southern California. Since 1966, he has been the director of the the Contemporary Group at the University ot Washington. His association with Dave Brubeck began at Mills College, where he was one of the founders of the Dave Brubeck Octet and responsible for many of the group's arrangements. His SCHIZOPHRENIC SCHERZO, written for the Octet in 1947, was one of the first successful integrations of modern jazz and classical procedures, a style which later became known as "third stream." His work with Brubeck and others in this direction can be heard on a number of the recordings listed below.
He was also among the earliest performers to experiment, in the early 1960s, with new color resources for the clarinet, this after listening to Severino Gazzeloni's similar work on the flute. His DUO FOR FLUTE AND CLARINET (1961) used these techniques, the multiple sonorities very likely being the first of their type to be precisely notated. He was also responsible for a number of other works using these sonorities, including John Eaton's CONCERT MUSIC FOR SOLO CLARINET (recorded on CRI 296), Gunther Schuller's EPISODES, Larry Austin's CURRENT FOR CLARINET AND PIANO, William Bergsma's ILLEGIBLE CANONS (recorded on MHS 3533), Pauline Oliveros' THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE - a theatre piece based on Smith's astrological chart - and Luigi Nono's A FLORESTA (recorded on Arcophon AC 6811). About VARIANTS FOR SOLO CLARINET (1963), Eric Salzman wrote (New York Herald Tribune, March 14, 1964): "William Smith's clarinet pieces, played by himself, must be heard to believe - double, even triple stops; pure whistling harmonics; tremolo growls and burbles; ghosts of tones, shrill screams of sounds, weird echoes, whispers and clarinet twitches; the thinnest of thin, pure lines; then veritable avalanches of bubbling, burbling sound. Completely impossible except that it happened."