CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Bill Smith 1926 – 2020

The clarinetist, composer, and frequent collaborator with Dave Brubeck was an innovator in both West Coast jazz and modern classical music

Bill Smith in 1996
Bill Smith in 1996

Bill Smith, a clarinetist, baritone saxophonist, and composer who worked in both the contemporary classical (where he was known as William O. Smith) and the West Coast jazz worlds, died February 29 at his home in Seattle, Washington. He was 93.

His death was confirmed to The New York Times by his wife, the former Virginia Paquette, who said the cause of death was complications from prostate cancer.

As a jazz musician, Smith was best known as a founding member of the Dave Brubeck Octet in 1946; he continued working on and off with the legendary pianist through the latter’s death. He also performed with and composed for such West Coast stalwarts as Red Norvo, Shelley Manne, and Barney Kessel, as well as working in the 1990s with avant-garde iconoclast Anthony Braxton. On the classical side, Smith was himself something of an avant-garde iconoclast, known as a clarinet innovator in both performance and composition and as a pioneer in the use of tape and electronics in modern classical music.

Perhaps inevitably, Smith was also an early explorer of the confluence of jazz and classical that came to be known as “third stream,” writing his “Schizophrenic Scherzo” for the Brubeck Octet in 1947 and a “Concerto for Clarinet and Combo” for Manne in 1957.

He referred to himself as “bilingual … I like to speak both languages,” in a 2016 interview that appeared in the journal The Clarinet. “I think to have the spirit of jazz in the classical things is good, and to have the jazz well-constructed like classical music is healthy.”

William Overton Smith was born September 22, 1926 in Sacramento, California; he grew up in Oakland. Beginning to learn the clarinet at age 10, Smith was from those early days attracted to both jazz and classical. At 13 he organized a dance band inspired by Benny Goodman’s, and at 15 joined the Oakland Symphony (again, he noted, inspired by Goodman). After graduating high school, he made one cross-country tour with a swing band, but quickly decided that the road life was not for him. Instead, Smith matriculated at Juilliard School of Music, remaining for a year—during which he also established a presence on New York’s 52nd Street jazz scene—before transferring to Mills College back in Oakland. At Mills, he studied with composer Darius Milhaud, thereby meeting another of Milhaud’s students: Brubeck. (He would later study with composer Roger Sessions while completing his master’s degree at the University of California, Berkeley.)

Smith joined with Brubeck in 1946 to form an octet, under Brubeck’s leadership, that explored the possibilities at the intersection of contemporary classical and jazz; it was during this period that Smith wrote his “Schizophrenic Scherzo” for clarinet, two saxophones, trumpet, and trombone. The octet disbanded in 1950, and the following year Smith won the prestigious Prix de Paris. He subsequently spent two years at the Paris Conservatory. Upon his return in 1953, he took a job teaching music at the University of Southern California, spending his nights on the then-burgeoning Los Angeles jazz scene, where he worked with Manne, Kessel, and Norvo as well as flutist Buddy Collette and pianist André Previn. He also substituted for alto saxophonist Paul Desmond in Brubeck’s increasingly famous quartet of the period.

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In 1957, Smith won another prestigious award, the Prix de Rome, going to that city to study and ultimately maintaining a second home there for the rest of his life.

Throughout these projects and musical pilgrimages, Smith was experimenting with his own instrument. He developed several techniques for multiphonics—the sounding of two tones at once—and even for playing two clarinets simultaneously, composing works for the clarinet that relied on these techniques. He also continued diving into third-stream, producing such pioneering works as his Concerto for Jazz Soloist and Orchestra in 1962. In the mid-1960s, he was under an exclusive jazz-composition contract with Brubeck—during which time his classical output exploded with pieces such as his Variants for Solo Clarinet (1963), Mosaic for Clarinet and Piano (1964), and Random Suite for Clarinet and Tape (1965), the latter being an important contemporary-classical experiment with electronics. He continued working in this vein, exploring the musical possibilities of computers and electronic effects.

Smith rejoined the Brubeck quartet on a full-time basis in the 1980s, continuing with the pianist until the mid-1990s. During that time, he was also a faculty member at the University of Washington, having arrived at the Seattle campus in 1966. While at the university, he and trombonist Stuart Dempster joined composer William Bergsma’s Contemporary Group, which they then led into the 21st century. He remained active well into his last years, recording with Brubeck as late as 2006; seeing works such as his “Bologna Blues” premiered in 2016; and performing at his own 93rd birthday celebration in September 2019.

Smith is survived by his wife, Virginia, and four children from a previous marriage: Mark, Gregory, Rebecca, and Matthew, as well as three grandchildren. A memorial is planned for his 94th birthday on September 22.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.