Bill Smith: Fifty Years of Innovation

by Peter Monaghan (Earshot Jazz, 9/96)

Bill Smith makes so much music that he's had to divide his workload between two personae.

As William O. Smith, he's an acclaimed and influential innovator in "new" or "contemporary music." He pioneered the use of many untapped sounds of the clarinet, and incorporated them into his 200 compositions.

In his second musical world, jazz, his renown is just as great, thanks not just to those same clarinet innovations, but moreover to his subtle use of them in soloing and accompaniment.

Dave Brubeck calls Smith "one of the all-time greats." And he doesn't just say that because he and Bill have known each other well for 50 years. They have worked together throughout that long friendship, which began when they were at graduate school together at Mills College, in Oakland, Cal. Smith was an original member of the Brubeck octet that worked the Bay Area, beginning in 1947, and with which Brubeck began one of the most successful careers in West Coast jazz.

Smith performed on and contributed compositions to the group's first recordings in the late 1940s and early 1950s. In the 1960s he again recorded with Brubeck - an album a year until he moved to Seattle in 1966. That pace of recording resumed when the two began working together again regularly in 1982. That was when Smith took over the soloist's spot with the Brubeck Quartet and began to work its many concerts - up to 100 a year. The group's pace has slowed of late, but Smith still performs on its long spring tours of Europe and on West Coast gigs.

When Brubeck asked him to begin touring with his band, Smith agreed with the proviso that touring wouldn't preclude teaching composition, orchestration, and contemporary idioms at the University of Washington, and co-directing its highly praised Contemporary Group.

This month, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. audiences will have an opportunity to hear the two Smiths, William O., and Bill, combined, when they appear with the talented Canadian clarinettist, Francois Houle, who studied with Smith last year. On the dates, at Jazz Alley on September 23 and at the Glass Slipper on September 28, they will be joined by Ed Pias, drums, and Michael Bisio, bass. A recording is planned.

The project, Smith agrees, marks a coming together of his two forms of musical expression. "Over the years I have sometimes intentionally tried to marry jazz with non-jazz style," he says unassumingly. He cites his "Schizoprenic Scherzo," from 1947, which he recorded with the Brubeck octet; "Concerto for Jazz soloist and Orchestra," recorded with Orchestra USA in the 60s; and most recently "Paris Imp" from 1996 for improvising computer & clarinet, which he premiered in July at the Paris International clarinet Festival.

"Hopefully Francois and I will be able to integrate these two worlds also," he says.

By the way: the shows also celebrate Smith's 70th birthday.

Attend them, and you can expect a performance of the kind that astonished the music critic, Eric Salzman, several years ago: "William Smith's clarinet pieces, played by himself, must be heard to be believed -double, even triple, stops; pure whistling harmonies; 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."

OK, so what if Paul Desmond has had the lion's share of glory in Brubeck collaboration?

Smith's own impressive achievement has been to work at a high level in both classical music and jazz. He avows to be less impressed about that than his admirers. "It always seemed natural to me," he says. "It's like a good dancer nowadays probably is familiar with ballet and modern dance and could even do a tap dance if he had to."

Smith's life in jazz began at age 10. A traveling salesman came to his family's door in Oakland and said to his mother: "You can't afford to pass up this opportunity. If your boy takes 24 lessons I'll give him a free clarinet."

Young Bill Smith got his clarinet.

He says: "My hero through most of my youth was Benny Goodman." Of course, the King of Swing played both jazz and classical music. Hearing his jazz playing, Bill Smith concluded: "That's what I should be able to do." At 13, he started a dance band - à la Stan Kenton, in miniature - and went pro. Sort of. For $8 to $12, his 8-piece combo played Elks clubs and the like. His dual, jazz-classics life began in earnest when, at 15, he joined the Oakland Symphony. But jazz took precedence out of high school. He began his dreamed-of life on the road with a dance band.

"I found out pretty quick that I didn't like it," he admits. So, heeding a colleague's advice to get schooling, he saved $1,000, quit when the band reached the east coast, and entered the Juillard School of Music.

While studying composition there by day, he had a regular spot with a jazz trio on 52nd Street, the stronghold of bebop in the 1940s.

Juillard proved no more satisfying than life on the road. Smith says he found its faculty reactionary. So, when he heard some pieces by Darius Milhaud and discovered that the French composer was teaching composition at Mills College, back in Oakland, he headed home.

Playing and hanging out with another of Milhaud's students, Dave Brubeck, took care of Smith's jazz inclinations. Meanwhile, Milhaud influenced him to work increasingly on new music and composition.

Soon after graduating, William O. won the Prix de Paris, which took him to the Paris Conservatory for two years. He later would win the Prix de Rome (1957) and two Guggenheims.

One of these afforded him a year in Rome where he experimented with and codified clarinet sounds, now known as "Smith's multiphonics," that had been considered unusable until he showed how to produce them consistently. The point, he emphasizes, has not been to find marginal sounds for the sake of their weirdness. "I have a lot of curiosity and love to explore," he admits, but he adds: "My aim is always to make music out of these new sounds."

He has never let up on exploring the clarinet's possibilities. In 1977, after a trip to Greece where he saw many images of ancient Greek double-pipe players, he wrote "Five Fragments" for Double Clarinet - two clarinets played simultaneously by one musician.

He then began experimenting with unusual configurations of the clarinet. For the past two years he has been playing the clarinet as an end-blown flute, like the ney and the kaval. He calls his version the clarflute. He has also been developing a system of computerized, real-time notation for new music. "I'm fascinated by real-time notation in which the notes to be performed pass a trigger line indicating when the performer is to play. In my most recent composition using this technique, Five Pages, the performers - two clarinets - read from a computer monitor on which color-coded notes (represented by stripes) on a musical staff appear." The notes are color coded so that a blue stripe represents a flat; green, natural; and red, sharp. Dynamics are represented by intensity of color. Light red signifies piano; dark red, forte.

As all that suggests, the Contemporary Group, which Smith has long co-directed with trombone-maestro Stuart Dempster, will not soon lack for William O. compositions to play at its twice-a-quarter concerts.

It was an invitation to form the new-music ensemble that lured Smith to Seattle in 1966. He had taught at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Southern California. Though semi-retired, he still co-directs the ensemble, and also teaches composition and jazz ensemble. As an academy-based composer, Smith has had a front-seat view of the growth of new music in the U.S. As he observes, "American new music seems to go hand in hand with universities."

In the late 1980s, he despaired about the prospects of new music in a country "where radio, television, the record companies, and the government ignore it." Even on campuses the music does not emanate far beyond a small circle. Still, Smith says philosophically, "We wouldn't even have that tidbit if we didn't have universities.

"University preservation of new music is valuable because it is the music of our time. In every other century people demanded the music of their era from their 'serious' composers. Now, if you asked people who are the important composers since 1945, they wouldn't even know."

Of course, jazz fans would fare little better than anyone else in such a test. Smith found that out early on. While studying with Milhaud and later with Roger Sessions, the vaunted American composer, Smith discovered at the jazz clubs he worked that, as he puts it, "whether I wrote a string quartet or not was of no interest to anybody."

Thanks to developments in telecommunications, his hopes for new music are higher than they were 10 years ago. "I think the Internet will make it more practical for individual artists to make their work available without recourse to giant marketing companies," he reasons.

It is perhaps not surprising that so thorough a musical innovator would express delight at being interviewed, as he was for this article, via the Internet while in Tasmania. He and his wife, the well-respected visual artist, Virginia Paquette, were there to complete residencies at the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery of Tasmania. They worked on one of their ongoing series of installation-piece performances that combine music and visual art. First realized at Centrum in 1993, the piece explored images of movement, water, and vortices, with music intervals and alternative notation.

Academe has not made Smith stuffy. His aura of inner peace makes him appears reserved, but his work suggests an antic disposition. For example, in his 1981 work, "Morning Incantation for Horn and Voice," a soloist provides the horn while the score asks that the audience provide a drone note, "ideally in F."

In 1986, when the Clarinet Society Conference was held here, Smith wrote a piece for a mile-long line of clarinettists. He admitted afterwards that it didn't quite go the way he had hoped, but it attracted untold publicity for the visiting reed players.

His humor often is subtle. He tells the story of performing at a White House dinner at the American Ambassador's residence in Moscow with the Brubeck quartet, during the hallowed days of détente. As Bill finished a solo, Mikhail Gorbachev quietly nodded in approval. What did Smith do?

"I nodded back."

Of the frequent playfulness of his work, Bill says: "That's just my nature. It's not a statement."

From Earshot Jazz, issue of September 1996 (206/547-6763)