Remembering Jazz Legend Bill Smith
Posted by Divine Art Recordings Group on
6 March, 2020
William Overton (‘Bill’ to everyone) Smith was not only a clarinettist of distinction in both jazz and ‘straight’ fields, but also a composer of remarkably innovative music, much of it for his own instrument. He single-handedly expanded the capabilities of the clarinet beyond the wildest dreams of other musicians. From the beginning of the 1960s he regularly discovered and explored many new ways of playing the instrument: multiphonics (producing more than one sound at once; playing two clarinets at once – inspired by the ancient Greek double wind pipe the aulos; using a cork mute, and much more. He also composed the first clarinet and tape piece and a 12-tone jazz concerto. Born in California in 1926 he could claim (if modesty allowed) more than most to be dubbed a truly versatile musician. He studied clarinet at Juilliard and the Paris Conservatoire. As Bill Smith the jazz player he was the co-founder, with fellow Darius Milhaud student at Mills College, of the Dave Brubeck Octet in 1946-47, continuing to work frequently with Brubeck. He also studied composition with Roger Sessions at Berkeley, going on to write well over 200 works.
Bill was inquisitive and searching, inventing ways of playing purely for his own interest. I remember sitting on the bed in his hotel room once being shown how he had recently found that one could play the clarinet without a mouthpiece – flute-like, as side-blown instrument. He also explored the use of computers and electronics. He was modest, entertaining, and with an engaging high pitch laugh, carrying a root of ginger in his pocket, from which he’d occasionally slice a piece off to chew to help keep him healthy. He was a special musician and a special person, continuing to play literally throughout his life, playing at a 93rd birthday concert in September 2019. Many will not realise his enormous legacy as one of the most creative musicians of the second half of the twentieth century, as they begin to explore the world of ‘advanced’ techniques for the clarinet. RIP Bill.
—Ian Mitchell, 6 March 2020
Bill Smith’s Discography on Métier