Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Bill Smith, William O. Smith, Br. Roy Parker, and Me (R.I.P William O. 'Bill' Smith)

I learned just yesterday, via the NY Times obituary, that one of the greatest of all clarinetists, William O. Smith (better know to jazz audiences as Bill Smith) passed away last February 29th. He was 93 years old, and lived a life wherein he contributed not only some of the finest jazz of the past century, but expanded our understanding of the clarinet, continuously, for decades. The obituaries will detail his remarkable and unique career - the talented composer who won the Prix de Paris, the Prix de Rome, and who studied with Darius Milhaud and Roger Sessions - the modern jazz master who recorded three albums of his own music with Dave Brubeck at the height of his popularity, but who preferred an academic career to a life of touring and recording. I'm sure there is much more to tell of those facets of his life and work, but his music effected me so deeply, I can't help but share one little story, of how I first heard Smith's music.

I was a teenager in the 1980s, immersed in clarinet playing and specifically jazz, when I happened to meet a monk from Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY. My brother and I used to spend time volunteering there--we'd clean the guesthouse before retreats. One of the monks was named Br Roy Parker, and though a soft spoken man, known for the masterful calligraphy he drew, he was in fact a huge fan of jazz, and while working in his shop would often listen to Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, and the like. He soon learned of my love of Goodman, Shaw, and others, and we'd talk jazz regularly. One Sunday afternoon when I was there to clean, Br. Roy announced that he was switching over his whole collection of cassette tapes to the newly introduced CD format -- and he gave me first pick of anything in his shop that I wanted. I don't remember all the tapes I took home that day -- but I remember the most important: Near-Myth/Brubeck-Smith. 

I had never heard of Bill Smith before, but that album opened new vistas for me as a clarinetist. In contrast to other modern jazz clarinetists, he seemed to come at modern jazz from a the point of view of a clarinetist, rather than through the saxophone. To put it another way, while it was clear he had listened to Charlie Parker, and gained language through that listening, it never seemed he was translating Bird to clarinet. To listen to Smith was to hear a musical personality of such depth, any influences were subservient to his own musical thought. For me personally, his art remains the most fascinating and satisfying of modern jazz clarinet.

His solo from 'The Unihorn' on Near-Myth was the first I ever sat down and transcribed by hand. Years later, I purchased the LP version simply to read the liner notes - it now hangs on my studio wall.

Near-Myth on my Studio Wall

A few years later, as an undergraduate clarinet major at the Hartt School of Music, I was given an assignment by the late Dr. David Macbride: to find a recording of a clarinetist using 'extended techniques' and play it for his 20th century music theory class. While rifling through the stacks of the Hartt Music Library, I stumbled across my first exposure to William O. Smith: Bill's classical side. Here I found him performing his own Concerto for Jazz Soloist and Orchestra, and a cavalcade of extended techniques in his brilliant Variants for clarinet solo. I've published a review of this album here.

I've made several attempts to get in contact with Bill Smith over the years, but unfortunately failed each time. I'd hoped to get copies of his lead sheets and other works that might not be readily available in print and tried in vain to get a hold of his published jazz clarinet method. If any of you readers know how to procure these things, please don't hesitate to contact me -- I'd appreciate it.

Though very little of his work is reviewed on this blog (his recording of The Riddle with Dave Brubeck might be my only other) it's more because of my admiration, and hopes to do his music justice, that I have refrained. I'll try to rectify that in the coming weeks and months.     

But those review's are for another, there's just one more thing...

The day Bill Smith died, I'd actually been messaging a friend about his music, how much it continued to inspire me. And when I learned just yesterday of Smith's death, I tried to find contact information for my old friend, Br. Roy Parker, who I hadn't spoken to in over thirty years. I wanted to let him know about Smith's passing if he hadn't already heard, and to thank him for introducing this music to me. But it turns out Br. Roy passed away just nine days before Bill Smith. Br. Roy was a great artist in his own right, and appreciated all the technical nuances jazz musicians navigated - he would ask me all about those things with great interest. He was a great listener, and learned from what he heard. I hope and pray that he and William O are swapping notes in heaven right now. 

Br. Roy Parker, OHC
The greatest music is so powerful that it impresses itself right onto one's life story. Br. Roy's kindness and Bill Smith's celebratory brilliance will forever be connected in my mind.  May they both rest in eternal peace.

Wall of Inspiration in my Studio

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