Bill Smith (jazz Musician)
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Bill Smith Jazz Musician

William Overton Smith (born September 22, 1926) is an American clarinetist and composer. He has worked extensively in modern classical music, Third Stream and jazz, and is perhaps best known for having played with pianist Dave Brubeck intermittently from the 1940s to the early 2000s. Smith frequently recorded jazz under the name Bill Smith, but his classical compositions are credited under the name William O. Smith.


Smith was born in Sacramento and grew up in Oakland, California, where he began playing clarinet at the age of ten. He put together a jazz group to play for dances at 13, and at the age of 15 he joined the Oakland Symphony. He idolized Benny Goodman, but after high school, a brief cross-country tour with a dance band ended his romance for the life of a traveling jazz musician. He gave two weeks' notice when the band reached Washington, D.C. Encouraged by an older band member to get the best education he could, Smith headed to New York.

He began his formal music studies at the Juilliard School of Music, playing in New York jazz clubs like Kelly's Stables at night. Uninspired by the Juilliard faculty, he returned to California upon hearing and admiring the music of Darius Milhaud, who was then teaching at Mills College in Oakland. At Mills, Smith met pianist Dave Brubeck, with whom he often played until Brubeck's 2012 death. Smith was a member of the Dave Brubeck Octet, and later occasionally subbed for saxophonist Paul Desmond in the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Brubeck's 1960 album Brubeck à la mode featured Smith performing ten of his own compositions with Brubeck's quartet (Yanow n.d.). Smith rejoined Brubeck's group in the 1990s. He studied composition with Roger Sessions at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was graduated with a bachelor's and a master's degree.

Winning the Prix de Paris presented Smith the opportunity for two years of study at the Paris Conservatory, and in 1957, he was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome and spent six years in that city. He has since received numerous other awards, including two Guggenheim grants (Monaghan 1996).

After a teaching stint at the University of Southern California, Smith began a thirty-year career at the University of Washington School of Music in Seattle, where he taught music composition and performance, co-leading the forward-thinking Contemporary Group, first with Robert Suderburg, and then with trombonist Stuart Dempster, from 1966 to 1997 (Mitchell 2001). Both Smith and Dempster are currently professors emeritus.


In 1947, Smith composed Schizophrenic Scherzo for the Brubeck Octet, one of the earliest works that successfully integrated jazz and classical techniques, a style that later was given the name "third stream" by Gunther Schuller (Mitchell 2001).

Smith has investigated and cataloged a wide range of extended techniques on the clarinet, including the use of two clarinets simultaneously by a single performer, inspired by images of the ancient aulos encountered during a trip to Greece (Monaghan 1996), numerous multiphonics, playing the instrument with a cork in the bell, and the "clar-flute," a technique that involves removing the instrument's mouthpiece and playing it as an end-blown flute. As William O. Smith, he has written several pioneering pieces that feature many of these techniques, including Duo for Flute and Clarinet (1961) and Variants for Solo Clarinet (1963) (Smith & n.d.(b)). In an article titled "Contemporary Clarinet Sonorities" (Selmer Bandwagon no. 67, fall 1972, pp. 12-14), Smith compiled the first comprehensive catalogue of fingerings for clarinet multiphonics (Rehfeldt 1994, 99-121). He was among the early composers interested in electronic music, and as a performer he continues to experiment with amplified clarinet and electronic delays. He remains active nationally, internationally, and on the local Seattle music scene as well, where in 2008, he composed, recorded, and premiered a "jazzopera" (his preferred term) titled Space in the Heart (Anon. 2008).


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" (Salzman 1964, quoted in Rehfeldt 1994,[page needed], quoted on Smith & n.d.(a)[unreliable source?]).


  • Prix de Paris
  • Phelan Award
  • 1958 Rome Prize
  • 1960 Guggenheim Fellowship (John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation 2010)
  • A Fromm Players Fellowship
  • National Academy of Arts and Letters Award
  • BMI Jazz Pioneer Award


  • Concerto for Clarinet and Combo (recorded with Shelly Manne)
  • Schizophrenic Scherzo, for clarinet, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, trumpet, and trombone (1947)
  • Concerto for trombone and chamber orchestra (1959)
  • Five Pieces for Solo Clarinet (1959)
  • Duo, for clarinet and tape (1960)
  • Five Pieces, for flute and clarinet (1961)
  • Concerto for Jazz Soloist and Orchestra (1962)
  • Variants, for solo clarinet (1963)
  • Mosaic, for clarinet and piano (1964)
  • Random Suite, for clarinet and tape (1965)
  • Quadri, for jazz ensemble and orchestra (1968)
  • Chronos, for string quartet (1975)
  • Five, for brass quintet (1976)
  • Five Fragments, for double clarinet (1977)
  • Intermission, for soprano, SATB choir, and various instruments (1978)
  • Musing, for 3 clarinets and optional dancers (1983)
  • Illuminated Manuscript, for wind quintet and computer graphics (1987)
  • Jazz Set, for violin and wind quintet (1991)
  • Epitaphs, for double clarinet (1993)
  • Ritual, for double clarinet (two clarinets, one player), tape, and projections (1993)
  • Soli, for flute, clarinet, violin, and cello (1993)
  • Five Pages, for 2 clarinets and computer (1994)
  • Duet in Two Tempos, for 2 clarinets (1996)
  • Explorations, for clarinet and chamber orchestra (1998)


As leader

  • Folk Jazz (Contemporary, 1959)
  • The American Jazz Ensemble in Rome, with Bill Smith, John Eaton, Eric Peter, Pierre Favre (RCA Victor 2557, 1962)
  • Americans in Europe Vol. 1 (Impulse!, 1963)

As sideman

With Anthony Braxton

With Dave Brubeck

With Barney Kessel

With Shelly Manne

With Red Norvo

  • Music to Listen to Red Norvo By (Contemporary, 1957)


  • Anon. 2008. "Composer Spotlight: Bill Smith, Space in the Heart, a Jazz Opera". Jack Straw Cultural Center website (May) (Accessed March 28, 2018).
  • "Bill Smith Biography at the University of Washington". Official UW Faculty Biography. Retrieved 2007.
  • John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. 2010. "Fellowships to Assist Research and Artistic Creation: William Overton Smith, 1960, Music Composition", (Accessed July 16, 2010).
  • Mitchell, Ian. 2001. "Smith, William O(verton) [Bill]". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Monaghan, Peter. 1996. "Bill Smith: Fifty Years of Innovation". Earshot Jazz, no. 9.
  • Rehfeldt, Philip. 1994. New Directions for Clarinet, second edition. The New Instrumentation 4. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-03379-5.
  • Salzman, Eric. 1964.[full ]New York Herald Tribune (March 14).
  • Smith, William O. n.d.(a). "Biography". University of Washington Website (accessed August 5, 2016).
  • Smith, William O. n.d.(b). List of Publications. University of Washington Website (accessed July 16, 2010).
  • Yanow, Scott. n.d. "AllMusic Review: Brubeck a la Mode". (accessed 5 August 2016).

External links

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